Waiting for a Green Light from Arlington County

EnviroCAB plans to make history, but first it needs to obtain a license to operate from Virginia's Arlington County.

The company plans to be the nation's first "carbon negative" taxi service, which means it will reduce its fleet's "carbon footprint" -- the amount of carbon dioxide that it emits over the course of a year.

enviroCAB's Cord Thomas (left) and Hans Hess. (Courtesy enviroCAB)

"Some of what has driven me to this interest in transportation is that I'm tired of these Code Orange days when it's so hot I can't even take my daughter out for a walk," said enviroCAB co-founder Hans Hess, an Arlington resident. "I want to turn over a planet that isn't polluted to my children" who are now two months and two years old.

To do this, the firm plans to work with a Maryland nonprofit that will calculate enviroCAB's hybrid vehicle emissions and the accompanying cost to offset (or even decrease) that pollution. enviroCAB's carbon emission offset costs are then directed to clean energy utility companies that Carbonfund.org of Silver Spring selects.

"You pay money to them because it's more expensive for them to generate clean energy," Hess said. "The electricity that they create goes onto the public utilities grid and local utilities are obligated by law to purchase that clean-source energy, and so it reduces the amount of pollutants into the air."

Hess and his nephew/partner, Cord Thomas, are hoping that the county sees the positives of their goal.

"Most of what we're trying to do is consistent with the county's goals," he said. That includes Arlington's Fresh AIRE initiative.

The firm initially asked the county for certificates to build a 100-car fleet, but on July 2 the county's transportation commission recommended that the firm receive only 35 licenses to operate their Toyota Prius and Ford Escape cabs. Next week, the county manager is scheduled to make a recommendation to Arlington's board on whether or not enviroCAB should begin operations. The board is expected to vote on the matter in September.

EnviroCAB's potential fleet of hybrid vehicles would emit one-fifth of the pollution that gas-fueled taxis generally do, said Hess, who estimates that Arlington cabs currently generate about 50 million pounds of carbon dioxide a year.

He acknowledges that the competition for starting a cab company in Arlington is tough. enviroCAB would be the seventh taxi service in Arlington, and more cab services are finding ways to integrate hybrid vehicles into their fleets.

Red Top Cab, which has served Arlington since the 1960s, recently added five hybrid Ford Escapes.

"Red Top is the first taxi company in the area to make an investment in hybrid cars," said Charlie King, Red Top vice president, in a statement. "We view this as an important, visible step in contributing to a cleaner, greener community."

This isn't Hess's first business venture. He's creating the company using the lessons he learned from his restaurant, Elevation Burger, a Falls Church, Va., eatery that aims to bring healthier fast food to the region. His wife, an accountant, is a partner in the restaurant, where her CPA skills have "helped the business immensely," he said.

"When I looked at the store, I thought we can help people eat more healthy, but we're still polluting the environment," said Hess, who is in his mid-30s and has a physics degree from California Polytechnic State University. For the last year, the store has purchased clean-source offset credits through Native Energy of Vermont.

If enviroCAB gets Arlington County's OK, it will begin to recruit drivers. Hess is confident that his owner-operated model will be an attraction. enviroCAB, like many taxi firms, will require drivers to pay for the vehicle's fuel, and a hybrid vehicle is expected to cost considerably less than a traditional car. A 2008 Prius gets about 46 highway miles per gallon, according to personal finance Web site Kiplinger.com. A 2008 Ford Crown Victoria, for example, gets about 16 mpg.

Summary: enviroCAB aims to distinguish itself from other cab firms by offering rides in energy-efficient hybrid vehicles. However, its business plan somewhat rests in the hands of county government. Although the firm has been working for months to get the necessary permits and approvals, it will not be until September that a final decision will be reached. Before starting a business that requires permits, consider what might be realistic timelines and deadlines from the county or municipality you wish to operate in. Consider a "plan B" if the local government decides not to grant you the license required to operate.

By Sharon McLoone |  August 9, 2007; 6:00 AM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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