BOSTON (AP) _ As fuel prices soar and drivers search for ways to save money, lawmakers are pushing a bill they say would make Massachusetts a national leader in the drive to ease dependence on gasoline.
The bill, which could come up for a vote in the Senate as soon as Thursday, would reward drivers who buy hybrid or alternative fuel cars with tax breaks, free transponders to get through tolls quicker and open access to HOV lanes.
The bill also would require that at least half of the state's fleet of vehicles run on alternative fuels by 2010, and establish an Alternative Fuels Institute at the University of Massachusetts.
Massachusetts is already ninth in the nation in the number of hybrid cars on the road, according to Republican Sen. Bruce Tarr, the bill's author.
``There's a willingness here to embrace this kind of technology,'' Tarr said. ``What we're trying to do is lead the way.''
The bill is getting a warm reception from the Republican administration of Gov. Mitt Romney, who has been pushing similar ideas. Senate President Robert Travaglini, a Democrat, said the cost to the state would be minimal.
Besides requiring the state to steadily increase its number of alternative fuel cars, the bill would authorize $10 million in state borrowing for a grant program to help local cities and towns and school districts add more alternative fuel vehicles to their fleets. The money would help build refueling stations.
The bill's backers hopes to reward businesses by offering tax incentives both for the purchase of new alternative fuel cars, and the creation of alternative fuels and refueling facilities.
The proposed Alternative Fuel Institute would be charged with helping develop those new technologies by working with private businesses, state agencies and the university.
Drivers who purchase a hybrid or alternative fuel car would also receive bonuses, from a $2,000 income tax exemption to a free Fast Lane transponder for the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Environmental and consumer groups are applauding the move.
``This bill will lead to enormous improvements in our air quality,'' said Brooke McConnell, of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group. ``Massachusetts will get cleaner cars on our roads sooner and save consumers money.''