Hybrids to get parking discount

City garages will offer reduction on monthly contracts

October 28, 2005|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

In the latest government incentive geared toward reducing vehicle emissions and gas use, Baltimore officials will announce today plans to nearly halve the cost of parking in city garages for owners of hybrid cars.

Fifteen city garages, from Little Italy to Pennsylvania Station, will take part in the program, which knocks up to $85 off the price of monthly parking contracts for hybrid owners starting Monday. The city is also considering reducing meter prices for hybrids.

More than a dozen states and a handful of cities offer breaks that encourage drivers to purchase fuel-efficient cars, such as tax credits, less stringent inspections and access to lanes usually reserved for carpools. Baltimore is one of the first cities to bend parking rules in exchange for fuel efficiency.

FOR THE RECORD - An article Friday about a plan to reduce the monthly parking fee in city garages for owners of hybrid vehicles included an incorrect number of hybrid vehicles in the city's fleet. Baltimore has four hybrids, two electric vehicles and 192 vehicles that have been retrofitted for reduced emissions. The Sun regrets the errors.

"Encouraging people to move away from fossil fuels needs to be done with a combination of incentives and disincentives," said Cindy Parker, who owns a 2004 Toyota Prius, one of three models covered under the program. "The more incentives the better."

Baltimore's program comes as cities and states across the nation have started offering incentives to reduce emissions that harm air quality. The hybrids use a combination of gasoline and electric motors to increase fuel mileage and reduce pollution.

Several states, including Virginia, Utah and Florida, have passed laws allowing hybrid drivers in high-occupancy vehicle lanes, which are normally reserved for car pools. States must seek waivers from the federal government to open HOV lanes or risk losing federal highway grants.

Oregon, Colorado and other states offer tax credits. Maryland's sales tax credit on hybrid vehicles, which ranged from $250 to $1,000, expired last year. The federal government offers an income tax credit of up to $2,000.

A few cities, including Los Angeles, Albuquerque, N.M., and New Haven, Conn., let hybrids park on city meters free - a move Baltimore leaders said they may phase in over time, depending on technology and cost.

New Haven began its program in July, and officials estimate about 100 drivers are taking advantage of the break. Derek Slap, a spokesman for Mayor John DeStefano Jr., said they expect the initiative has cost the city roughly $1,000 in lost revenue.

"It's worth doing whatever we can to improve air quality," said Slap, who said one reason the city launched the program was to curb high asthma rates.

At first, Baltimore will cap participation at 200 vehicles, officials said, and the program will apply only to monthly, contract parking. Starting Monday, drivers of the Prius, the Honda Insight and the Honda Civic Hybrid can apply for a decal that will let them park in specially designated spots in the city's garages.

Baltimore officials do not expect the program to dent the $18.6 million in annual revenue collected from the city's garages. That money pays off loans the city used to build the garages and is also directed to the general fund.

Only 17 hybrids have monthly parking contracts with the city, on average, said Peter E. Little, executive director of the city's parking authority. Any money the city loses, he said, could be recaptured by new hybrid customers.

"We anticipate there's going to be a lot of interest," Little said. "We're hoping that we get 200 vehicles."

Little said the city considered several models, but limited the program to the three with the highest fuel efficiency and that had been accepted by other government programs.

For hybrid owners, savings would range from $85 at the St. Paul Street garage, 210 St. Paul Place, to $32.50 at Market Center, 221 N. Paca St. The average savings is just over $55.

A set number of first-floor spots will be designated in each garage for hybrids and a corresponding number of decals will be issued for that garage. Waiting lists will be used if more car owners are interested in taking part.

The city will charge a $25 application fee, and eligible drivers must have no outstanding parking tickets.

In 2004, 1,514 new hybrid vehicles were registered in the Baltimore area - a nearly 80 percent increase over 2003, according to the city Department of Transportation. With concerns over the fluctuating price of fuel, city officials said they believe that number will rise.

In a fleet of just over 3,000 vehicles - one-third of which are police vehicles - Baltimore has nearly 200 hybrids, including 106 load packers and 37 fire engines.

Mayor Martin O'Malley is driven in a Ford Expedition, but a spokesman said a new hybrid will soon be added to his set of vehicles.

Parker, who owns the Prius, is also on the board of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which has advocated for Maryland to adopt California's strict emission standards.

Given her driving habits, she said she believes it will take up to seven years to save enough money through fuel efficiency to break even on the extra cost of her hybrid. The margin is so tight, she said, that even small savings can make a difference.

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