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Environment: Fuel Program Too Efficient

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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 because it's been too successful.

 

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 last year, 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, states have incentive programs of their own. 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 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 hybrids may already make economic sense. Consumer Reports also found that drivers of certain hybrids netted $300 to $400 after five years or 75,000 of driving compared to gasoline-fueled models of the same vehicle.

 

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 like 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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