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Environment: Bucks to Breed Hybrids Stop Here -- Temporarily

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A program to encourage Pennsylvanians to drive fuel-efficient cars has guzzled the last of its funding two months ahead of time, and next year's budget is likely to be smaller.

 

The Department of Environmental Protection program, offering $500 rebates to people who bought hybrid cars or cars running on alternative fuels, will likely burn through the $1.5 million of state money set aside through the Alternative Fuels Incentive Grants program by late April. The state has awarded more than 2,600 rebates since the program began, says DEP spokesperson Charlie Young. It will have only $1 million to fund next year's rebates, beginning in July.

 

"We let it be popular," says Young. "It's not our expectation we'll be able to do that next year."

 

The market for hybrid cars is small but growing. In 2005, hybrids accounted for 1.26 percent of all U.S. auto sales, up from less than 1 percent in 2004, according to Consumer Reports' Web site, www.consumerreports.org.

 

In addition to federal tax credits that vary according to the type and size of vehicle purchased, other states have different incentive programs in place. West Virginia offers a tax credit based on the difference in price between a hybrid or alternatively fueled vehicle and a comparably equipped traditional car. (The Toyota Prius, for example, costs about $5,700 more than its closest gas-only cousin, the Toyota Corrolla LE.) In Maryland, hybrids are exempt from emissions testing and can get discounted parking in city-owned lots in Baltimore.

 

But it may be some time before hybrids make absolute economic sense. Consumer Reports also found that drivers of a Honda Civic hybrid, for instance, save only $400 over 75,000 miles compared to the gasoline-fueled model, which costs $4,000 less to purchase.

 

Rachel Filippini, executive director of Pittsburgh's Group Against Smog and Pollution, still figures last summer's spike in gas prices probably has something to do with increased interest in fuel-efficient cars here. Groups including hers will probably take the environmental help any way they can. "It's a wonderful sign," she says, "that people are demanding that their cars be more efficient."

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