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Originally published April 28, 2012 at 4:44 PM | Page modified April 28, 2012 at 9:55 PM

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State's expensive love affair with 4-wheel drive hybrid SUVs

The reasons for the SUV buying binge are complicated, but state officials say the biggest driver was Gov. Gary Locke's order not to.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

State purchases of SUVs increase

MARK NOWLIN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Click to zoom | After lawmakers put in place policies to reduce gasoline consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, the state Fleet Operations office increased its purchase of costly SUVs, almost all hybrids.

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OLYMPIA — A curious thing happened when former Gov. Gary Locke signed an executive order in 2005 freezing the purchase of four-wheel drive sport-utility vehicles — the state started buying more.

The year before Locke's order, about 26 percent of all vehicles bought by the state Fleet Operations were SUVs. By 2010, they accounted for 77 percent of purchases by the agency, the largest vehicle buyer for the state. Most of them were more expensive four-wheel drive hybrids.

The reasons for the SUV buying binge are complicated, but state officials say the biggest driver was Locke's order. Although meant to stop most purchases of gas-guzzling four-wheel drive SUVs, it exempted those rated to get more than 30 miles per gallon. It also encouraged the purchase of hybrid vehicles to cut fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In essence, the state treated all hybrids as equal. As a result, "Everyone said we'd love to have that (hybrid SUV) rather than a dinky little Prius," said House Ways and Means Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina.

The SUV of choice was the four-wheel drive Ford Escape hybrid, which costs $29,400 a pop, according to a recent Fleet Operations analysis. The agency bought more of them than any other hybrid, even though their own analysis showed the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight were more cost effective. The Prius, for example, cost the state about $7,000 less than the Escape and got 72 percent better gas mileage.

The four-wheel drive hybrid Escape also costs $9,000 more than the non-hybrid model and nearly $13,000 more than the front-wheel drive version, the state analysis shows.

A follow-up memo to Locke's order said driving in bad weather didn't warrant buying four-wheel drive vehicles, but they could be justified when needed for travel on unimproved roads, off-road in mountainous terrain or for "immediate response in severe weather conditions."

Dave Boyle, a senior analyst with Fleet Operations, said in an email that the Ford Escape was exempt from those guidelines because of its high gas-mileage rating, "and therefore was allowed to replace a sedan if the requesting agency felt they had a need for the vehicle."

It turned out to be an expensive exemption.

In all, Fleet Operations bought more than 600 SUVs in the five years after Locke's order — more than twice the number purchased in the previous five years. The agency made its biggest SUV buy in 2008 as the state was slipping into recession, and continued loading up on the vehicles as state tax revenues fell off a cliff. Although the state was buying fewer cars overall, the percentage of SUVs it purchased actually increased through 2010.

The state stopped nearly all vehicle purchases in 2011 when Gov. Chris Gregoire took emergency measures to slash spending due to the state budget crisis.

But Fleet Operations, until recently known as the state motor pool, ordered another 145 SUV hybrids this fiscal year — purchases that were largely scuttled only because Ford stopped making the car.

No central accounting

No one knows for sure how many vehicles the state owns.

A recent estimate pegged the entire fleet at around 14,600 cars, trucks, SUVs, vans and other vehicles.

But there's no centralized accounting when it comes to motor vehicles. Colleges, universities and state agencies that do not use Fleet Operations keep track of it themselves.

As vehicles wear out, or agencies decide they need a car or truck for a particular purpose, the state generally goes through competitive bidding to buy new ones.

On average, the state purchases more than $20 million worth of new vehicles each year, ranging from State Patrol cars to half-ton pickup trucks.

From 2000 to 2011, the state bought about $270 million worth of vehicles. Fleet Operations, which provides vehicles for state agencies and manages the fleet, was the single largest buyer with roughly 20 percent of all purchases.

The Washington State Patrol, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Natural Resources manage their own fleets.

From 2001 to 2005, Fleet Operations bought 296 SUVs, the vast majority non-hybrid. It also purchased more sedans than SUVs.

After Locke's executive order was issued, the agency purchased 617 SUVs — nearly all hybrids — from 2006 to 2010. During that time period, SUV purchases outstripped sedans.

Locke's order stated, in part, "effective immediately, agencies shall freeze the purchase of any four-wheel drive sport-utility vehicles and shall instead purchase two-wheel drive vehicles. Four-wheel drive vehicles that are rated to achieve over 30 miles per gallon and vehicles purchased for law enforcement or emergency response purposes are exempt."

Tom Fitzsimmons, Locke's former chief of staff, said in a recent interview that the intent of the order was not to increase or decrease SUV purchases.

"It was an honest effort to reduce gas emissions and reduce fuel use," he said. "I don't think we ever thought there would be more SUVs one way or the other. I just thought we said, if you're going to buy an SUV do it this way."

Ford Escape hybrids were originally rated to get more than 30 mpg, but revised federal estimates later fell below that threshold, Boyle, with Fleet Operations, said.

Fleet Operations still purchased them because it was the agency's understanding Locke's executive order specifically exempted the Escape, and it was the only SUV on the market that approached that kind of mileage, Boyle said.

And state agency managers were asking for them, Fleet Operations officials said. "Justifications for the SUVs range from needing cargo room, to needing off-road capability ... to needing room for passengers," officials said in an email.

State records show nearly half of the hybrid SUVs maintained by Fleet Operations are located in the Puget Sound region.

About 71 percent of them are four-wheel drives and are used by various agencies, including the state Department of Labor and Industries, the Public Employee Relations Commission, the Liquor Control Board, and the Department of Early Learning.

Too many requests

By the summer of 2011, Fleet Operations concluded it was getting too many requests for the hybrid SUVs.

"Customers seemed to be asking for a 4x4 vehicle more often, especially in situations when there may have been a sedan previously," the agency stated in an email response to questions from The Seattle Times.

The agency wrote new guidelines for hybrid Escapes, stating they were no longer exempt from the restrictions that applied to other four-wheel drives, and that driving in bad weather or mountain passes was not justification for buying one.

Instead they could only be purchased "when the primary assignment of the vehicle is to operate on unimproved roads... , operate off-road in mountainous terrain, or for immediate response in severe weather conditions for the safety of citizens or the environment."

Also in 2011, the state had put a freeze on most vehicle purchases because of budget cuts; Fleet Operations ordered only three SUVs. But when the restrictions were lifted for 2012, the agency ordered 145 — more than the previous two years combined.

When asked why, Fleet Operations said that because the state is consolidating control of vehicles, the agency is managing more fleets from natural-resource agencies, including Fish and Wildlife and Agriculture, that need four-wheel drives. It ordered the vehicles "in anticipation of customer needs," agency officials said in an email.

The order was later substantially reduced, but only because Ford stopped making the hybrid Escape. Ford is expected to replace it with a new non-hybrid that gets similar gas mileage.

Agency officials said they will purchase non-hybrid SUVs only on a limited basis.

In an effort to stem further SUV purchases, Rep. Hunter stuck a proviso in the state budget this year requiring the Department of Enterprise Services director, who oversees Fleet Operations, to personally approve every vehicle purchase.

"Maybe that will sharpen the focus of the people who are making the decision," said Hunter, who took action after The Seattle Times asked about the SUVs.

Joyce Turner, the director of Enterprise Services, was on vacation last week and could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman said the agency had no problem with the budget proviso.

Hunter said he plans to dig deeper into the state's vehicle purchases when the Legislature goes back into session next year. "You'd like only the people who actually need to drive this stuff off-road to buy a four-wheel drive vehicle," he said.

Seattle Times reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this story.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or agarber@seattletimes.com.

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