As the municipal version of Al Gore, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels became semifamous in 2004 for challenging the nation's mayors to meet or beat the goals of the Kyoto Protocol and reverse global warming. Just last week, Nickels' office announced in a press release that 514 cities have now signed on to his U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, and that Seattle was continuing to take "bold action under Mayor Nickels" to cut emissions.
As part of his crusade, Nickels announced last summer that he'd "traded in" his elegant city Cadillac limousine for a new, fuel-efficient Toyota Highlander SUV gas-and-electric hybrid. Not exactly: Turns out, the limo just moved to backup status. But environmentally and politically, the mayor left critics in the dust with his professed switch from the 17-miles-per-gallon Caddy to the 31-miles-per-gallon hybrid.
The Cadillac, like two other mayoral limousines that preceded it in recent years, had been an inconvenient truth when contrasted to Nickels' much-ballyhooed greenhouse crusade. Critics such as Sound Politics blogger Stefan Sharkansky thought it was hypocritical of the mayor to use a "chauffeured" limo on his sometimes 100-mile daily rounds of appearances. "[While] he's calling on other people to get out of their cars," wrote Sharkansky, "Nickels' gluttonous dependence on his own official automobile should raise eyebrows."
But while the hybrid switch a month later may have helped clear the air in several ways, the mayor wound up using more money and gas than he did when he cruised around exclusively in the limo, according to city records. But the city says gas records for the Cadillac and hybrid released to Seattle Weekly—detailed fuel-pump statements for a nine-month billing period (March through August and October through December) in 2006 from the city's Fleets and Facilities Department—shouldn't be taken literally.
"Our systems don't track the information in a way to allow one to make [car-to-car] comparisons," says Fleets and Facilities spokesperson Katherine Schubert-Knapp. "When the fuel clerks enter a charge into the system, they pick the [vehicle] number they think applies to the car."
Some charges, Schubert-Knapp adds, could have been attributable to another backup car: a Ford Explorer SUV that gets 11 miles to the gallon and stands at the ready should the hybrid need a tune-up. (The billing documents show no charges for the Explorer, and Schubert-Knapp couldn't explain why that vehicle didn't have its own billing number.)
At any rate, the billings do show this: From October through December of last year, when the gas-saving hybrid was in service, the mayor charged 400 gallons of gas, costing $1,140; compared to 260 gallons at a cost of $870 from March through August, when the Cadillac was in service.
At one point last year, after announcing the hybrid switch, Nickels actually had three mayoral cars to pick from. Despite the June 1, 2006, press release stating that the mayor had traded in his limo, the city hung on to the Caddy until September, using it as a reserve vehicle for the mayor, along with the hybrid and the Explorer.
"In June 2006, the backup car went from being a 1998 [Ford] Expedition to a 2000 Explorer," says Schubert-Knapp. "During the time we had the Cadillac, the hybrid, and the Explorer, the Cadillac was the backup car and the Explorer was used by security overnight. The Explorer is now the backup car, and is also the car the mayor's security takes home each night."
Altogether, the records show, the mayor's nine-month gas bill reached $2,000 for 660 gallons he racked up over the course of at least 16,800 miles. The mayor's office declined to comment for this story, but Schubert-Knapp says the mayor simply has to travel a lot around the community, and he "fortunately now has a hybrid to do it in."
It's an example others are following. In December, King County Executive Ron Sims gave up the county's Lincoln Town Car and switched to a Toyota Highlander hybrid like the mayor's, says Sims spokesperson Carolyn Duncan. (Sims recently bought a new Honda Civic hybrid for personal use. Nickels' personal car is a 1998 Toyota Camry.)
Other city and county officials around the U.S. have also made the switch, including, most recently, Tampa, Fla., Mayor Pam Iorio. Shortly after signing on to Nickels' Climate Protection Agreement, she said she had no choice but to exchange the city's Lincoln Town Car for a Toyota Camry hybrid. Meanwhile, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg makes a big thing about taking the subway around town and this week announced his city's yellow taxi fleet will go entirely hybrid within five years.
Since his greenhouse crusade began in earnest, Nickels was squired about in a 2003 Lincoln Town Car limousine from April 2004 to April 2005, followed by a 2005 Town Car limo from April 2005 to March 2006. Last March, he moved to his third limo in less than 12 months, paying almost $12,000 up front for a year's lease on the Caddy.
Altogether, the two Lincolns and the Cadillac cost taxpayers almost $38,000 in lease payments for about 30 months' use, records show, before the cars were returned without penalties or rebates, the city says.
In June, the city purchased the lower-polluting hybrid Toyota SUV outright for $45,000. When the mayor's Caddy went back to the dealership three months later, it still had five months remaining on the prepaid lease, effectively sticking the city with a $5,000 loss.
The hybrid is costing more than the prior vehicles for repairs and maintenance, mainly because work on the limos was, under the terms of the lease, fully covered by the dealer. Records show the city has spent $1,800 for the new hybrid's maintenance and repairs, constituting about a week's downtime in the city garage. Costs include replacing a cracked windshield and repairing damage to the interior caused by a spill in the back seat. Wipers and a global-positioning-system mount were also replaced.
Glitches in the shiny new SUV weren't unexpected, according to Schubert-Knapp. "When we bring a new car into service, we want to make sure it works and is maintained," she says. "Hybrids have a whole different [electrical] system."
There are also questions about hybrid mileage claims and whether fuel savings offset other costs associated with owning such a vehicle. Some gas-electric cars don't save as much gas as advertised, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which recently issued a new list of fuel-economy ratings. The mayor's vehicle, for example, dropped down to 27 mpg in the city, while some consumer-group road tests rated it as low as 20 mpg.
"It all depends on how your mayor drives the car, or how it's driven for him," says Washington, D.C.–based EPA spokesperson John Millet. "Drive gently, make sure the car is maintained, and of course you'll get better mileage, if you don't have any excess payload or baggage."