What do you do when you keep falling short of the goal? One solution would be to move the goal posts closer — and that’s what the Department of Administrative Services is trying to do regarding the fuel efficiency of the fleet vehicles it manages.

There has been a law on the books for more than a decade that requires the state’s fleet vehicles to average 35 mpg by October 2001 and 40 mpg by January 2003.

They didn’t make it. In fact, they still haven’t made the 2001 mark. The state’s 3,238 cars and light duty trucks are just about hitting an average 26 mpg.

The law also calls for half the fleet to be alternative fuel vehicles by January 2008 and all of it to be that by January 2012. According to DAS spokesman Jeffrey Beckham about 10 percent of the fleet are Priuses and Civic hybrids, though many vehicles can use a mostly ethanol mixture, which is considered an alternative fuel, as well as gasoline.

So DAS wants to do the same thing it failed to do last year: change the law.

Legislation submitted (again) by the department would get rid of the mileage minimum entirely and push the deadline for a 100 percent alternative fuel fleet to January 2016.

“We’ve been cited by the auditors for failure to comply, but quite frankly we probably are not going be able to comply for a number of years,” Donald DeFronzo, DAS commissioner, said at a Government Administration and Elections Committee hearing on the legislation this week.

“The cost of the more fuel efficient vehicles is one problem and the very unique and differing needs of state agencies is another,” he said. “Public safety vehicles are included in this mandate. Those vehicles almost by necessity have to be more high powered, less fuel efficient.”

So another part of the legislation would remove law enforcement and emergency response vehicles from the mix.

Committee co-Vice Chairman Rep. Matthew Lesser, D-Middletown, who is also a member of the Energy and Technology Committee, agreed that a 40 mpg standard for 2003 was “a little optimistic,” but he’s not inclined to eliminate the mileage mandate.

“Efficiency is money,” he said. “We need to find a balance that protects the mandate, but maybe pushes that out a few years.

“If you have a law that’s impossible to comply with that’s not good. When it doesn’t make sense we need ways to make it a little more flexible but continue to encourage agencies towards more energy efficiency, but with a little more reality on the ground.”

The DAS fleet does not cover all state government cars. Some departments buy their own, and work vehicles like snowplows are handled separately by the Department of Transportation.

Beckham said during normal years, there’s a turnover of about 600 vehicles. Preferences these days for smaller vehicles are the Ford Focus and Chevy Cruze — 865 of them — which get about 38 mpg on the highway. They’ve replaced the Dodge Stratus, which only got 25 mpg.

Ford Fusions and Chevy Malibus have replaced the Ford Taurus for mid-sized cars and for SUVs, Ford Escapes now replace Ford Explorers, which got considerably lower mileage.

More than that, the number of total vehicles has been dramatically reduced. There were more than 4,000 in 2009, and state employees are simply driving less.

“We’ve been much more rigid in terms of the use of state vehicles, so our utilization of fuel in general is down; our mileage per state employee is down; our miles per gallon per vehicle is up,” DeFronzo told the committee. “So we’re making some dramatic progress, but to get to 40 miles per gallon in the next two or three years is a bit unrealistic.”

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.

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