Local agencies look for fuel fat

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Nationally, the cost of gas has skyrocketed—as recently as March, the average price of gas in Charlottesville was $3.15, and now it’s around $4. While the rise has forced most of us to re-evaluate what we spend money on, the recent economic challenges have also caused our city and county governments to undergo a similar review.


City officer Kia West walks her patrol. City police have mandated that patrol officers spend two hours of their shift outside their vehicles to save on fuel costs.

Charlottesville has already switched to biofuels in some transit and school buses, has made plans to purchase a larger hybrid fleet and has incorporated an anti-idling program. The city is also in the midst of a fuel evaluation study, asking departments for ideas to cut down on fuel costs, which has resulted in an initial idea list that numbers close to 100.

Some of the recommendations currently being considered include adding motion sensor lighting, as well as reducing mowing and Mall sweeping frequency. Neighborhood Development Services has suggested telecommuting one day a week where appropriate, and purchasing a department bicycle to be used on short trips. Public Works has recommended raising the office thermostat (or reducing it in winter) and removing poorly efficient vehicles from its fleet.

The county is looking at similar practical measures, most significantly the greater implementation of a four-day/10-hour shift work week. According to county spokesperson Lee Catlin, the county’s four-person zoning inspector team is making this shift, and several members of the Housing Office as well as county police detectives are already working this altered schedule.

With their reliance on transit, schools and the police are obviously hit harder than most departments by the rising fuel costs. In the county, 217 school buses travel approximately 12,000 miles a day. Last year, they spent $1.2 million on 731,650 gallons. Their fuel budget for this year is $1.7 million. As one means of attacking rising costs, the county commissioned a biodiesel pilot impact study last year. The results of that study were just submitted and will go before the Board of Supervisors this month.

The county school system also recently completed a survey of its transportation recipients and was able to determine that some 900 people along their bus routes did not need pick-up. As a result, the routes have been completely redesigned this year to cut down on unnecessary trips. On the city side, schools are researching efforts to encourage walking to school and carpooling.

Within the police department, the county has already begun to alter some practices, requiring carpooling to all training or other activities outside Albemarle, an emphasis on not letting cars idle, and two officers (as opposed to one) per patrol car on emergency calls.

“There’s nothing off the table,” says Lieutenant Todd Hopwood, county police spokesperson, about any future actions to reduce fuel usage. At the same time, he is careful to caution that “we don’t want to reduce our service to the citizens.”

Hopwood is quick to point out the basic realities for a county patrol officer. With 700 square miles to cover and a total force of 123 sworn officers (only some of those performing patrol duties), there is little an officer can do besides driving around the large rings they must cover.

The challenge is smaller for the city, only 10 square miles in circumference. As a result, Charlottesville police have been able to take the straightforward measure of simply requiring officers to spend more time on foot, mandating that all officers on patrol take two hours out of their normal shift to patrol their district outside their vehicle.

Still, police Captain Allen Kirby says, “the patrol car is like our office,” and the move will require a change in philosophy, from one of a complete reliance on automobiles to a humbler means, literal boots on the street.

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