March 4, 2013 By Ryan Holeywell
Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard is trying to accomplish something that hasn’t been done before in a major city: He’s trying to convert the city’s entire vehicle fleet to run on alternative fuels, and he wants to do it by 2025.
Greening a city’s fleet is by no means a new idea. It may even sound like something that’s been done before. Cities from Seattle to Ann Arbor, Mich., to Boston all have programs to green their fleets. But unlike Seattle, Ann Arbor, Boston and other cities, Indianapolis plans to green every vehicle in its fleet.
The plan works like this: The first step is moving about 500 city-owned sedans to plug-in or hybrid vehicles. A newly signed executive order requires the city to make that switch as older vehicles are phased out. Next, the city will move heavy fleet vehicles -- like fire engines and garbage trucks -- to compressed natural gas. And the final step -- and possibly the trickiest one -- is the conversion of its police vehicles.
That’s what makes Indianapolis’ plan unique: When city officials discuss the importance of green vehicle fleets, they generally aren’t talking about cop cars. (To be sure, Indianapolis is not the only city to announce plans to green its police fleets; New York City, for example, has some plug-in police vehicles on the streets now.) Tom Johnson, a fleet expert who runs the annual Government Green Fleet Award, says there are a lot of reasons for that. The main one is that municipal governments have historically had a difficult time converting their police vehicles because of local politics. “The police see themselves as an entity apart -- separate and special,” Johnson says. “That’s pretty prevailing.”
But advocates of Indianapolis’ plan argue that police vehicles shouldn’t be ignored by any city that’s truly trying to transform its fleet, simply because they represent a huge portion of any city’s vehicles. In Indianapolis, for example, more than 1,900 of its 3,100 vehicles are cop cars. Ballard hopes to change the status quo by offering up his city as a sort of laboratory to any automaker interested in testing more fuel-efficient solutions for police vehicles that can also still meet the demands of the job. The city has no formal agreements with any automakers at this time, but is in talks with several of them.
Johnson thinks Ballard’s plan has a good chance of succeeding since Ballard himself is loudly trumpeting it. The mayor, Johnson says, carries more gravitas than, say, a fleet manager or other city official. And Ballard is committed, largely because of his own personal history.
A former Marine and veteran of the Gulf War, Ballard says he’s pursuing the goal not for environmental reasons but for the sake of security. “That war was clearly about oil,” the mayor says, recalling his time in the military. He sees the switch as a way for his city to contribute to national security by reducing dependence on foreign oil. He’s hoping other local governments will follow suit.
If national security doesn’t sway them, maybe the savings will. According to Ballard, the city’s police cruisers get about 10 mpg, roughly equivalent to the fuel efficiency of a Hummer H2. If the city’s police fleet started getting 40 mpg, Indianapolis would save as much as $10 million annually in fuel costs. While electric vehicles tend to have higher upfront costs than gasoline-powered vehicles, Ballard says he wouldn’t be pursuing the effort if he didn’t think it made economic sense. “Everybody in Indianapolis knows I’m a tightwad,” Ballard says. “Unless we’re able to save money on this, we wouldn’t be going in this direction.”
This story was originally published in GOVERNING magazine
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