Hybrid vehicles put county on road to fuel independence 

Loud, exhaust-belching city maintenance trucks and gas-guzzling sedans are becoming increasingly sleek, silent and fuel-efficient, as local governments replace aging fleets with vehicles running on electricity, natural gas or "biodiesel."

While the environmentally friendly vehicles produce fewer emissions and reduce the amount of fossil fuel being burned by local governments, the new vehicles also save money by increasing gas mileage or eliminating the need for gasoline.

The move to fuel-efficient vehicles is one of the most conspicuous examples of the region’s push toward environmentally sound practices. Both San Mateo city and county are discussing forming task forces to lower emissions and encourage the use of sustainable resources.

Foster City — which uses a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle for police events — also recently considered lowering city speed limits to accommodate the slow vehicles and is going to promote their use around town.

The city of San Mateo has seven Toyota Prius hybrids for use by city administration and building inspectors and the entire diesel fleet runs on a mix of standard diesel and biodiesel fuel made from processed vegetable oils, Public Works Administrator Vernon Ficklin said.

In addition to the city’s garbage trucks, the diesel fleet includes the city’s fire trucks.

"We had to make sure it worked for our vehicles, we couldn’t take a chance with their performance," Ficklin said.

Because the vegetable-oil-based fuel can damage fuel lines and seal contained natural rubber products, biodiesel is often mixed with traditional diesel fuel when used in vehicles. One common blend with 20 percent biodiesel, called "B20," is used in many California cities including San Mateo.

Ficklin said the cost to retrofit the city’s fleet with compatible equipment prohibits San Mateo from using any higher biodiesel mixes.

Like San Mateo, Foster City is phasing out old vehicles in favor of new hybrids. As their Ford Taurus fleet ages, they are replaced by Priuses. There are currently two in use, with one to be added later this year.

The Priuses saved the city approximately 500 gallons of unleaded fuel and $1,500 in gas money last year, Director of Parks and Recreation Kevin Miller said.

Foster City’s Police Department also uses one Neighborhood Electric Vehicle.

The county’s fleet currently includes 88 hybrid Priuses and Honda Civics, two hybrid Chevy Silverado pickup trucks, two electric Ford Rangers, six Chrysler GEM NEVs and one street sweeper that runs on compressed natural gas.

"And our plan is to look at hydrogen fuel cells once they become available," San Mateo County Vehicle and Equipment Manager Robert Radcliffe said.

E-mail Jason Goldman-Hall at jgoldman@examiner.com.

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