In Md., hybrids haven't become rural vehicles


SNOW HILL -- Parked along Green Street here are the pickup trucks, vans and SUVs - a Chevy Blazer, a Ford Expedition, an Oldsmobile Silhouette - that you might expect to find in the commercial hub of a rural Eastern Shore community.

But there aren't many compact cars to be seen here, and not a single hybrid - those gas-and-electric-powered cars so beloved of environmentalists and the economy-minded. Some people in Snow Hill aren't even sure what a hybrid car looks like.

"I think I've heard of them," said William G. Cropper, who lives a few miles outside Snow Hill. "Do they look different than regular cars? I think they have them in California, but I don't know if I've seen any around here."

Cropper probably hasn't seen one for a good reason. Hybrids are few and far between in Snow Hill, and even more scarce in the nearby towns and communities on the Lower Shore.

Take a three-hour drive across the state to Montgomery County, and it is a different story. There, environmentally conscious drivers who can afford to spend a few extra thousand dollars on a car are enamored of the hybrid.

In Takoma Park, there are 387 registered hybrid cars, according to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Association. That comes to one for every 45 people.

In wealthy Potomac, near Rockville, there are 270 hybrids registered in one ZIP code, the most of any ZIP code in the state.

"There is a lot of dispensable capital in this area," said Edward Cornfeld, who owns a white Toyota Prius hybrid parked in a Giant store lot near Rockville. "Also, there is a high percentage of college graduates, a high percentage of Democrats and a lot of people around here realize that the situation in the Middle East isn't going to get any better."

A Capital News Service analysis of the registration of hybrid vehicles in Maryland by ZIP code confirms Cornfeld's thesis.

Of the five ZIP codes with the most registered hybrids, four are in affluent, highly educated, politically active Montgomery County - two in Bethesda, one in Rockville and one in Takoma Park. If ZIP codes are grouped by community, six of the top 10 in Maryland are in Montgomery County, along with Columbia, Annapolis, Frederick and Ellicott City.

There are 815 hybrids registered in the six ZIP codes designated for Rockville - one for every 58 people in the community that might fairly be called the hybrid capital of Maryland.

In the 27 ZIP codes designated as Baltimore mailing addresses, by way of comparison, there are 1,523 hybrids. In the Baltimore area, the largest concentrations of hybrids are in Catonsville, North Baltimore, Pikesville and Mount Washington. That number may be about to rise, however. In October, the city announced that hybrids will be given a break in 15 city parking garages that might save their owners as much as $85 a month.

By contrast, the list of ZIP codes with only one or two hybrids reads like a recitation of the rural communities of the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland. More than 100 Maryland ZIP codes - communities such as Cavetown and Fairplay, Mardela Springs and Accident, Bivalve and Fruitland and yes, Snow Hill - have fewer than four registered hybrids.

"This is a country area," said Snow Hill resident Larry Wilkinson, who drives a Chevy pickup for its utility and said he isn't interested in a hybrid right now. "People don't really understand what hybrids are. They're still into pickups and muscle cars."

There are only two registered hybrids in Snow Hill, with a population of about 2,500.

According to statistics on hybrid registration, Maryland has more than 12,000 registered hybrid cars.

Data from 2004 show that California has the most hybrid cars, followed by Virginia, Washington, Florida and Maryland, according to R.L. Polk & Co., a Southfield, Mich.-based firm that collects and interprets automotive data.

Maryland is fifth on the list of hybrid registrations but 19th in population.

Mike Tidwell, spokesman for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, an environmental group that supports hybrid cars, said that should not be a surprise.

"The richness of the Chesapeake Bay makes Marylanders sensitive to issues of clean air and water," Tidwell said. "The affluence of the state and the emphasis on education are also factors which make it less surprising that Maryland has so many hybrid cars."

The IRS allows hybrid vehicles to qualify for a one-time "clean fuels" tax deduction of up to $2,000. The deduction applies to hybrids bought in 2004 and 2005 and is scheduled to disappear in 2006. Maryland provides other incentives for buying hybrid cars, including exemption from motor vehicle emissions testing requirements.

But it was clear in a series of interviews around the state that most hybrid owners were motivated by concern for the environment and high gas prices.

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