- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2014

President Obama has championed fuel efficiency in cars as a way to save money and reduce pollution. But a report shows that the government isn’t practicing what it preaches, leaving some federal agencies not knowing exactly how much they are spending on gas.

The number of federally owned cars, trucks, vans and other vehicles has risen nearly 20 percent from 2002 to 2012, and the prices have risen with it.

Yet there is little incentive “to minimize fuel costs and save taxpayer dollars,” said the Government Accountability Office, the top investigator for Congress, noting that the purchase of vehicles and use of the fleet cost taxpayers nearly $3 billion in 2012.

For guzzling gas with taxpayer money, the General Services Administration wins this week’s Golden Hammer, a distinction from The Washington Times given to examples of fiscal abuse and waste.

Investigators are concerned that the methods used to track gas usage are wrong and that fuel costs could be higher than the $430 million in 2012 originally reported in a program run by the General Services Administration.

The GSA allows agencies to rent cars when needed through a $1.1 billion program that covers nearly half of all federal vehicles.

But the GSA tracks only the total miles each vehicle travels, which “may not fully reflect some fuel costs,” investigators said. “These include costs associated with some driver behaviors such as idling, speeding, and fast stops and starts.”

That could leave taxpayers on the hook for excessive gasoline use.

Plus, with the GSA in charge of tracking the vehicles, other federal employees don’t know exactly how much gas they are using each trip. Without a clear idea of the costs of their trips, the employees have little incentive to try to reduce gasoline use, the accountability office said.

“Given the amount that federal agencies pay GSA to lease vehicles it is important for GSA to ensure that it is operating its leasing program in a manner that encourages agencies to minimize costs associated with their leased vehicles,” investigators said in a report released this week.

Better information on how much vehicles are used, how much they cost and whether they are needed in the first place could save millions of dollars, investigators said.

“Especially in this era of budget constraints and spending caps, any effort the federal government can take is welcome,” said Emily Goff, a transportation and infrastructure analyst at The Heritage Foundation. “Even though it’s a small drop in the bucket in terms of the deficit reduction we need, it’s a start.”

The GSA has taken steps to keep down costs, including buying cars at lower sticker prices than those at dealerships. But the inaccurate calculations on gas could mean the vehicle fleet is more costly than originally thought.

The accountability office said the first step is to get basic information on how much each vehicle is used.

Better data on vehicle use, called telematics, “could facilitate cost savings by providing fleet managers with information needed to reduce fleet size, fuel use, misuse of vehicles, and unnecessary maintenance,” the accountability office said.

The Energy Department’s Idaho National Laboratory tracked how often it was using vehicles and decided it could do with 65 fewer cars, trucks and vans, for an annual savings of $390,000.

GSA officials said they will work to improve tracking usage and costs of the fleet but already provide “a robust fleet management system that provides detailed and accurate data.”

In the meantime, the government has been trying to find instances where, like the Idaho National Laboratory, certain vehicles just aren’t needed.

Last year, The Times reported that two-thirds of Defense Department vehicles in the Washington area weren’t meeting minimum usage requirements. Many were driven less than 1,000 miles each year.

“There’s some areas in the federal government where physically getting in the car is necessary,” Ms. Goff said, but email, teleconferencing and other technological developments have reduced the need for transportation.

“There’s more ways to leverage technology so that travel is needed less,” she said.

The GSA program doesn’t account for fuel use of the entire federal government, including the Postal Service’s massive fleet of mail delivery trucks.

It also doesn’t touch upon fuel spending for military air and sea vehicles. As first noted by The Washington Free Beacon, a report this week revealed that the Defense Department paid $150 a gallon for 1,500 gallons of biofuel for jets, almost 52 times the current price of $2.88 per gallon for conventional jet fuels.

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