`Clean car' rental firm looks at BWI

Aid wanted for autos that burn natural gas

Automobiles

July 25, 2000|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

A California company that specializes in renting cars powered by natural gas and electricity wants to bring its business to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. But the company's plan comes with a price tag.

In its negotiations with the state, EV Rental Cars of Los Angeles is asking for an incentive package of at least $280,000 to help offset the financial disadvantages of competing with conventional rental-car companies with its higher-priced, alternative-fuel vehicles.

"They have an interesting concept," W. Dale Baxter, assistant director of the Maryland Energy Administration, said yesterday of EV Rental's participation in the rental car business. "We would like their first outlet on the East Coast to be at BWI."

"It would be good for the environment and good for the air quality of this region," said Baxter, who also is coordinator of the state's clean air program and alternative fuels administrator.

Terry O'Day, director of planning and operations for EV Rental, said the company would like to start with a fleet of 25 natural gas-powered Ford Crown Victoria sedans and Honda Civic GX compacts.

The next step, which would likely take place early next year, would be to add 25 Toyota Prius compact sedans to the fleet. Prius is a hybrid car powered by an electric motor and a small gasoline engine. It delivers 52 miles per gallon in city driving and cuts tailpipe emissions by 80 percent compared with a typical compact car.

All-electric cars could be added in the future once the infrastructure, including charging stations, is in place.

O'Day said cars powered by natural gas offer greater acceleration and better fuel efficiency than comparable gasoline-fueled vehicles.

"Twenty-five Ford Crown Victorias, using natural gas, pollute less than one running off of gasoline," he said.

O'Day said the company, which shares facilities with Budget Rental Car Co., is also looking at opening outlets at Washington Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

BWI, he said, has an advantage because it has a natural gas fueling station that is used by the airport's fleet of shuttle buses.

To make its venture here economically viable, O'Day said the company needs financial help from the state.

Baxter said the company is seeking to have the state pay the $4,000 difference in the cost of each natural gas car over models using gasoline.

"That's $4,000 times 25 cars," said Baxter, stopping short of doing the math that added up to $100,000. "We have some funds in the Clean Cities program, but I don't think we can support all 25 cars, if we do it at all."

In addition, EV Rental is seeking a waiver of concession fees, based on a percentage of gross sales, that rental car companies stationed at BWI pay the state Aviation Administration. It also wants grants of $60,000 a year, for its first three years, to help cover operating expenses.

Erin Henson, a spokeswoman with the Maryland Department of Transportation, said the agency is negotiating with EV Rental to determine if the company qualifies for a grant from its advanced technology vehicle program.

O'Day said the company needs state incentives because alternative-fuel cars cost more than conventional models, and the company's rates need to be competitive with other rental car companies. He said the rental fee for a natural gas-powered Honda would be $44.95 a day.

"It's a project in development," Baxter said of EV Rental's proposal. "We are still negotiating with them. We need more information on the number of vehicles they rent in California and their rental fees."

He did not rule out a state incentive package to assist EV Rental, saying there is some money in the clean air fund to help pay for such programs. "We hope to make a decision in a month or so," he said.

Baxter added that motorists are becoming more conscious of the environment and looking at cleaner-running vehicles. He noted that natural gas is cheaper than gasoline.

Tom Hattery, another assistant director of the Maryland Energy Administration, said the state provides a tax credit of up to $2,000 for the purchase of electric cars and $1,500 for hybrid vehicles. He said it would apply to a company as well as individuals.

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