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Universities seek ways to cut fuel costs

With $3-a-gallon gasoline looming, the state's two largest public universities are looking for ways to improve fuel economy and reduce the use of faculty and staff automobiles.

In the coming year, the University of Utah estimates spending at least $600,000 on gas for 466 vehicles. Last fiscal year, which ended in July, the U. spent $438,000 on gas. Utah State University spent $415,000 on fuel for cars.

The U. is following the lead of state fleet administrators who recently sent out tips, such as reducing the time cars are idling and how often air conditioners are on.

"That's the kind of thing we continue to circulate," said Orfeo Kostrencich, administrative manager of plant operations at the U.

Consideration of buying more hybrid cars is "getting closer all the time," Kostrencich said.

TRAX trains now running between the campus and downtown, where school officials often have meetings, also helps reduce automobile use, he said.

USU, a land grant university with satellite locations around the state, has 650 vehicles, including a few gas/electric hybrids, in its fleet.

"We certainly do try to get rid of the older vehicles," said Darrell Hart, USU assistant vice president for facilities.

USU replaced older campus shuttles with buses that run on compressed natural gas, but that was more to help improve air quality. Time will tell if the move will save USU money, but for now, even natural gas prices have been going "crazy," Hart noted.

USU administrators said they aren't yet ready to do so, but rising gas prices raise the question of whether to pass the increase on to students.

At the U., the ripple effect may come through the school's self-sustaining commuter service department — it does not receive state support. That department, which also runs the free campus shuttle system, is also responsible for issuing parking tickets, selling parking permits and charging for parking spaces at special events.

At Weber State University, the cost to run a campus shuttle system has gone up exponentially with gas prices. Students are now charged $20 per year to park at the formerly free Dee Events Center lot.