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Hybrid Drivers Go Extra Mile for Md. Emissions Legislation

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page C07

Parades have rolled through downtown Annapolis before, but never with this kind of gas mileage.

Sixty hybrid cars encircled the Maryland State House at noon yesterday in a show of support for clean-air legislation that would hold cars, pickups and sport-utility vehicles to stricter emissions standards borrowed from California.

Tina Kaarsberg of Frederick rides around the State House in Annapolis in a Toyota Prius. (James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

Demonstrators arrived in Toyota Priuses and Honda Insights decked out in posters reading "Detroit, you can do better" and such vanity plates as EZBNGRN and LESSCO2. They'd traveled from as far away as Cumberland, in the mountains of Western Maryland.

And no one had burned more than a couple of gallons of gas.

Unlike the usual gasoline-engine cars, the hybrids' gas mileage improves in city traffic. "I got 64.2 miles per gallon during the parade," a woman shouted from the crowd during a rally at St. John's College afterward.

The Maryland Clean Cars Act, being considered by the General Assembly, would add the state to the seven that have adopted California's clean-air standards as their own, in place of weaker federal rules.

If the bill becomes law, hybrid gas-electric vehicles, such as the Prius, will have to account for 5 percent of new vehicles sold in Maryland starting in 2009, and an additional 30 percent will be conventional vehicles modified to emit fewer toxins, according to the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the group that co-sponsored the parade and rally.

"It's a historic day, because we're looking forward, we're looking forward to the future," said Mike Tidwell, the event's chief organizer. "The future was in that parade."

Auto dealers say they like cleaner cars but are afraid that the legislation would put them at a disadvantage with their competitors in Virginia, Delaware and the District.

Hybrid vehicles cost a few thousand dollars more than gas-burning counterparts. The modifications required to reduce emissions in gas-burning vehicles would add a few hundred dollars to the sticker price, according to Travis Martz, lobbyist for the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association. Bottom line: Dealers outside Maryland, he reasoned, could sell the same car cheaper.

"Dealers will lose a deal if people pay $5 more a month," said Martz, who attended the rally.

States now must choose between two sets of clean-air standards for cars. Most follow the regulations dictated by the federal Clean Air Act. Seven states, from New Jersey to Maine, have adopted the stricter standards set by California in 1990, which require that a certain percentage of vehicles sold have low-emissions components.

The clean cars bill has been introduced twice before in Maryland, but proponents believe that they have the best chance of winning passage this year. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and the House Environmental Matters Committee are expected to vote on versions of the bill in March.

"On our count, we need one vote in the Senate committee, one or two votes in the House committee. It's that close," said Brad Heavner, director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, who has lobbied in favor of the bill.

At 12:15, the hybrid cars brought traffic on State Circle to a halt, with a few bewildered SUV drivers trapped among tiny Toyotas. There was an eerie quiet to the circle, with the hybrids running mostly on silent battery power.

"Quietest traffic jam in the history of the world," Tidwell said.

Michael Fortune, a climate scientist, had driven in from Silver Spring. He said he was first in his neighborhood to buy a hybrid car, and he bragged about the government incentives that trimmed the price to $17,000.

"I bargained the price down, as you can with any car," Fortune said. "And then I got a $1,000 check back from the state of Maryland. And then I got a $2,000 deduction from the federal government."

And don't forget the mileage.

"I buy one tank of gas a month," he said.

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