Politicians go for spin in gas-guzzling SUVs

Md. officials ignore negative symbolism of polluting vehicles

July 01, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A champion of environmental causes in last fall's election campaign, Gov. Parris N. Glendening patrols Maryland in a vehicle considered one of the worst polluters on the road -- a giant Lincoln Navigator sports utility vehicle.

And though Baltimore's often hazy atmosphere is rated fourth worst in the United States, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's favorite ride is in the Ford version of Glendening's behemoth -- an Expedition.

Jumping on the popular SUV bandwagon, politicians from Glendening to county councilmen are ignoring environmentalists' complaints and riding around in ever-larger, four-wheel-drive vehicles -- and at taxpayers' expense.

In contrast to the 1970s, when oil shortages sent elected officials throughout the United States searching for smaller cars to impress voters, the boom times of the late 1990s have seemingly had the opposite effect.

The Environmental Defense Fund lists Glendening's leased Navigator, the Ford Expeditions bought for Schmoke and Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, and Harford County Executive James M. Harkins' Chevrolet Tahoe among the 12 worst vehicles for the environment. They're gas hogs, critics say, getting 12 to 17 miles per gallon, producing more emissions that add to global warming.

The politicians "could do more to set a good environmental example," said Candace Morey of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Environmental leaders haven't directly criticized the politicians who drive SUVs.

The politicians say they value the vehicles' utility, comfort and convenience.

While vehicles can be powerful symbols -- critics helped foil Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen's 1990 re-election bid by attacking his luxurious Lincoln Town Car -- today's leaders appear unworried.

Glendening spokesman Don Vandrey said the SUV is comfortable for Glendening's back and useful for hauling. "He does like the vehicle," Vandrey said.

Vandrey added, "We're not aware of any correspondence or concerns" about sending the wrong environmental message.

"I find it efficient," Schmoke said about using his big Expedition as a sort of rolling office. He said the higher pollution and low gas mileage aren't "compelling enough" to make him switch.

Image of power

The male officials who use SUVs say machismo has nothing to do with their choice of transportation, although the vehicles do project an image of power. The biggest weigh in at nearly 3 tons each -- about twice the weight of a subcompact car. Most sport eight-cylinder engines and sit high above the ground. Riders can look down on nearly everyone else on the road.

Harkins said that by taking the Tahoe out of Harford's water and sewer bureau fleet, instead of buying a new vehicle, he saved the county thousands of dollars.

"I've got to lead by example," Harkins said. "When the phones start ringing because someone's street hasn't been plowed [of snow], I've got to respond."

Ruppersberger said he feels the same way.

"I go all hours of the day and night. That vehicle is a resource I use to do my job effectively," especially when it snows, he said.

Other leaders, such as Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry and Baltimore County Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley and Council Chairman Kevin B. Kamenetz, have smaller, county-purchased SUVs. Curry uses a Chevrolet Blazer, and the others have Jeep Cherokees.

Sedans pollute less

Executives in Anne Arundel, Howard and Montgomery counties use large, four-door sedans, which are rated much kinder to the air. Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Baltimore City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III also use sedans.

"To me," said Howard Executive James N. Robey, "the [Ford] Crown Victoria is more comfortable, rides better and uses less gas." In bad weather, he said, he pulls a four-wheel-drive Blazer from the county motor pool.

Several officials said they weren't aware of the pollution problem.

"I'm not a mechanic. I'm not sure," Ruppersberger said.

SUVs, pickups and vans are so popular, they represent about half the passenger vehicles sold annually. Environmentalists argue that because of a long-standing exemption from federal emissions standards, SUVs are negating years of efforts to stem air pollution from vehicles.

"It's just a ridiculous energy waster. All these things ignore the fact that the Earth is a limited resource," said Christopher Bedford, Maryland coordinator of the Sierra Club.

Morey noted that the federal government is moving to tighten emissions standards for light trucks and SUVs. If the loophole excluding them from tougher auto-emissions standards had never existed, her group says, the emissions level would have experienced a drop equal to the removal of 40 million cars from the roads.

Like Schmoke, Ruppersberger switched last year from a small Jeep to the larger Ford Expedition.

His dark green, used 1998 model cost taxpayers $29,343, officials said, while the city paid $26,846 for Schmoke's nearly identical model. Glendening's Navigator is leased directly from Ford, under a program for governors and mayors designed to encourage them to drive Ford products by offering a lower lease rate. Maryland pays $643 per month for the Navigator, Vandrey said.

Succumbing to the allure

Even some environmentalists in public office succumb to the SUV allure.

Howard County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, former executive director of Maryland's Sierra Club chapter, drives a 1992 Jeep Cherokee as his personal vehicle, though he feels "not great" about its exhaust gases.

He'd love to get a bigger truck, he said, the better to separate his three occasionally fussy children. "But I'll never get one," he said, because of the emissions concerns.

Pub Date: 7/01/99

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