Anyone who says government stifles innovation hasn't met Windell Mitchell.

Mitchell oversees the care and feeding of the 2,700 vehicles owned by the King County (Wash.) Department of Transportation. In the environmentally sensitive city of Seattle, his unenviable challenge is to reduce the fleet's greenhouse gas emissions without spending taxpayer dollars on premium-priced alternatively fueled vehicles.

Several years ago, undaunted by IRS rules that prevent government agencies from using tax credits to buy hybrid cars, he formed a purchasing consortium open to any government agency in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Ultimately, his department sold more cars and SUVs than many of the manufacturers' dealers in those states.

When hybrid utility trucks came on the market, he formed a similar consortium just for government agencies in Washington State. He applied for and received $250,000 through the EPA's SmartWay program and $150,000 through the Federal Highway Administration's Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Improvement Program to help members buy and try out the technology.

He then challenged Kenworth—a manufacturer in his own backyard—to develop a hybrid utility truck. When the company came through, Mitchell's agency became the nation's first to place the Class 7 truck into service. (The department uses the vehicle, which has a 50-foot boom, to maintain traffic lights.)

Using a blend of 20% biodiesel and 80% ultra low sulfur diesel, the truck used 25% less fuel in the 5,000 miles it logged during its first year of operation. Winchell's got five more on order, and may replace all conventionally fueled bucket trucks with hybrids.

You may think Winchell's story is unique, that applying for grants takes time, and that he's enjoyed the benefit of the resources that come with serving the nation's 13th-largest city. But in addition to being able to market its proactive response to air pollution, the department was charged with hosting the first national "clean vehicles" conference.

Think about the PR mileage that public works department is getting out of just one employee's unique approach to financing.

Stephanie Johnston
Editor in Chief, PUBLIC WORKS Magazine,
sjohnston@hanleywood.com