We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Mayor Williams navigates the district a gallon at a time.
Politically speaking, Mayor Anthony A. Williams comes off as a staunch environmentalist. He favors strengthening the city’s tree canopy and keeping cars off Klingle Road. Seeking election in 1998, he took to the Anacostia River in a canoe and announced an intended $5 million cleanup initiative for its waters.
When the nature-loving mayor makes his official rounds throughout the city, though, he does so with an SUV that gets 12 miles to the gallon.
The mayoral ride, a black 2001 Lincoln Navigator, is a rolling monument to auto-industry excess. It stands more than 6 feet tall, spreads 6-and-a-half feet wide, and stretches some 17 feet from its huge front grille to its dusky slab of a rear window. And it weighs a gas-sucking 2-and-two-thirds tons.
When it comes to the SUV craze, the city’s leader is a follower. According to industry figures, 50 percent of personal-vehicle sales in the D.C. area last year were light trucks, the category that includes SUVs and pickups—up from 40 percent in 1992. Nationwide, SUVs and the related crossover utility vehicles have quadrupled their market share since 1989, according to the trade publication Ward’s Automotive Reports.
Taking a stand against the spread of the jumbo vehicles, the D.C. Council is considering an act that would ban the District government from buying SUVs save for special purposes: as armored vehicles, or for security, rescue, and snow removal. If it becomes law, D.C. would follow Virginia’s Fairfax County, which voted in July 2001 to stop purchasing SUVs for its fleet and to set a limit on the number the county could own.
According to June testimony by the Department of Public Works (DPW) Fleet Management Administration’s Ron Flowers, the District has 227 SUVs, which make up 5.8 percent of its fleet. In the eyes of At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, who chairs the Council’s Public Works and Environment Committee, that’s too many. “We’re talking about a city here,” Schwartz said at a May hearing on the measure. “It’s not as if our employees are out there negotiating blizzards on rural dirt roads in mountainous terrain.”
Though the mayor’s schedule doesn’t include much mountain climbing, Schwartz says the council will leave the fate of the mayoral Navigator to the executive branch. “My concern had to do with the proliferation of SUVs throughout our government [rather than with a single SUV],” she says.
Still, that one SUV is in a prominent position. Williams professes sensitivity to the environmental issues that SUVs pose but says it’s his mayoral duty to have the behemoth in his entourage. After all, he says, sometimes it snows around here.
“The reason why I carry an SUV,” the mayor says, “is so that I can be available at any time, any hour, to go to an event in any kind of conditions. And I think people expect that of me as mayor.”
Yet the chief executive doesn’t reserve the Navigator for special occasions or emergency conditions. It’s one of three vehicles—the others are a Crown Victoria LX and a Lincoln Town Car Signature—that are used in his regular, year-round detail. “Most of the time, we’re on pavement,” says mayoral Director of Communications Tony Bullock. “There’s not a lot of back country in the District.” Bullock says he doesn’t ride in the SUV every day, but he can’t recall its ever having gone off-road.
And protestations about its usefulness aside, the luxe, jumbo-sized Navigator is hardly a Willy’s Jeep. With a base price of $47,865 for the four-wheel-drive version—the District leases Williams’ for $8,772 per year—it’s a 21st-century VIP wagon, heir to the Town Car that Marion Barry used in his day.
Tinted windows conceal the mayoral Navigator’s interior, and its driver is not forthcoming about its contents. But the DPW confirms that the auto has a CD player, leather seats, and a built-in universal garage-door opener. According to Lincoln Mercury press materials, other standard features include 10 cup holders—for a vehicle that seats up to eight passengers—and an overhead console that computes fuel consumption and acts as a compass.
District officials wouldn’t clarify whether the mayor has the full navigation-system option, which retails for $1,995, but the vehicle doesn’t have the optional fold-down TV system with VCR. Some nonstandard options, though, are visible: Three separate antennas protrude from the Navigator’s sides, and red and blue police-style lights peek out from under the grille.
The lights, Bullock says, would be used only in an emergency—such as rushing to the emergency-operations center—or occasionally to get the attention of other law-enforcement types, at a guarded entrance, for example. “If we’re running late to an event, tough,” Bullock says. “He’s not going to hit the sirens and lights.”
If the mayor is willing to go with the flow of traffic, why not just go with the flow of subway commuters, the way New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg does? The Foggy Bottom Metro station, not far from the mayor’s home near the Watergate complex, is a mere three stops—four minutes—down the Orange or Blue Line from Metro Center, which is less than four blocks from the Wilson Building.
According to Bullock, the mayor’s commute is too complicated for that, with speaking engagements, breakfast meetings, and so forth before he even gets in to work. Riding Metro, Bullock says, the mayor would need to coordinate staffers to deliver briefing materials to Metro stops. The Navigator, on the other hand, can serve as a rolling office, carrying all the staff and supplies for briefings en route.
So fuel efficiency is a casualty of the mayor’s schedule. On June 19, Williams’ itinerary included seven different stops for meetings and public appearances. At 12 miles per gallon, the 28-mile trip would have taken some two and one-third gallons of gasoline (see chart).
The 2002 Honda Insight, which topped the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s list of the greenest vehicles of 2002, would have burned about a half-gallon on the same route. Asked about the possibility of switching to the tiny Insight, Bullock responds: “I’m pretty sure there’s been zero consideration of that option. Some of the mayor’s detail have long since lost their girlish figures and would probably have a little trouble navigating the interior.” CP