HELENA – The Montana Highway Patrol is running more than $330,000 over budget on its annual gasoline bill this summer and is using money for gas that had been earmarked to hire more officers.
To save money, the Highway Patrol is slowly phasing out its V8 Ford Crown Victoria cruisers and replacing them with V6 Chevrolet Impalas, which get better gas mileage.
“I don’t see (gas prices) coming back down,” said Larry Fasbender, deputy director of the Department of Justice, which oversees the Montana Highway Patrol. He was quoted by the Montana Lee Newspapers, which reported Sunday on the patrol’s struggle with rising gas prices.
The patrol is one of many state agencies struggling to absorb higher gasoline prices. The hardest-hit are those like the patrol, which perform safety and emergency functions and depend on vehicles that get poor gas mileage — such as fire trucks or big vans full of prisoners.
The agencies are struggling under the same weight as all Montanans. The motorist group AAA says gas prices are 33 percent higher this summer in many Montana cities than a year ago.
For the patrol, that figure translates into a June 2008 gasoline bill that’s $23,000 higher than what the force paid to gas up its fleet in July 2007, an increase of more than 25 percent.
The patrol spent $1.1 million for fuel in fiscal 2008, which ended June 30 – the first time it’s ever cracked the $1 million mark on its fuel spending.
“The new (Impalas) coming out get more than 20 miles per gallon on the highway,” said Lt. Col. Michael Tooley, deputy chief of the Highway Patrol. Chevrolet has engineered the new Impala engine to shut down two of the cylinders if they’re not needed. That means the engine can run as efficiently as the four-cylinder engines commonly found in smaller cars.
But there are limits to what the force can do, Tooley said. The patrol buys cars certified for law enforcement use. They are specially designed to run all the electrical equipment of modern law enforcement and have a large enough back seat to accommodate the “cage” that separates an officer from a suspect – and allowing everyone to be properly buckled in.
Given that the force is often called upon to chase speeders, troopers can’t drive a car with a small, efficient engine.
“We’d probably get left in the dust a lot,” Fasbender said.
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