HERMISTON - The engine in Rolly Cassens' car turns off at every stop sign.

When he's traveling at a steady speed on a flat slice of land, the only sound heard in his car is of the wheels turning on the ground and the music coming from the speakers.

Cassens' Toyota Prius is one of the hybrid cars that use both electricity and a gas engine to float down the road.

When Cassens purchased his $20,000 car two years ago, he became the first person in Hermiston to own one of the environmentally-sound, fuel-efficient, silent vehicles.

Today, a handful of people in Umatilla and Morrow counties own one of the hybrid cars.

Hybrids draw power from two different energy sources, typically a gas engine combined with an electric motor. When the car brakes, it uses the energy created in the frictional heat to recharge its electric battery, he said.

By way of a small computer screen in the dash of his car, he can watch when each engine kicks in, and how many miles to the gallon he's getting at that very moment.

"I'm 77," he said. "Every old man needs a toy."

Cassens said his 10.5-gallon gas tank, combined with the electric motor in his aqua-colored four door, can take him to Portland and back without one fill up at the gas station.

For now, the only versions available in the United States are Honda's Civic Hybrid and Toyota's Prius. But General Motors Corp. recently announced plans to offer a variety of the hybrid vehicles during the next four years.

The federal and Oregon governments have energy tax credit programs for the hybrids to encourage more drivers to hit the road in the fuel-efficient cars - a plus at a time when gasoline prices are averaging $1.63 a gallon of unleaded, according to AAA.

However, the 2001 Oregon Legislature approved a doubled registration fee for hybrid and electric vehicles. Registration fees for a conventional vehicle is $30 for two years, while hybrid and electric cars pay $60 for two years.

The Oregon Office of Energy, which maintains Oregon's tax credit programs, said since hybrid vehicles don't use the same amount of gas, hybrid owners don't pay the same amount of the gas tax, which is used to maintain roadways. Doubling the registration costs "ensures that vehicle owners using Oregon's roads contribute fairly to road construction and maintenance," according to the Office of Energy.

The increase is a thorn in Cassens' side, saying it's discriminatory. However, "I'm not hollering about this," he said, pointing to the "Eat My Voltage" bumper sticker on his read window. "But it's the principle of it."

In the meantime, he'll continue to drive his car, let his friends go for test-drives and answer questions about his hybrid.

"They ask me, how long do you have to plug it in?" he said. "That's just it. You don't."

Teri Meeuwsen is a reporter in the East Oregonian Hermiston Bureau. She can be reached at (800) 522-0255 (ext. 1302 after hours) or by e-mail tmeeuwsen@eastoregonian.com.

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