BOSTON (AP) – Driving a hybrid car already means free parking at meters in one Connecticut city and reserved parking spots near the front door of a New Hampshire company. Now, some Bank of America employees will receive $3,000 cash if they buy one of the fuel efficient vehicles.

On Wednesday, the bank announced the incentive program for 21,000 employees in Boston, Los Angeles and Charlotte, joining other companies and communities nationwide in pushing the hybrids.

Environmental officials said they hope the pilot program by the nation’s largest retail bank has broad effects.

“When you have a major institution like Bank of America that is involved with so many other companies, there is a spin-off effect where they inspire other companies to follow their lead,” said the Environment Protection Agency’s regional director, Bob Varney.

The city of New Haven, Conn., already offers free parking at city meters for residents who drive hybrids, while Timberland Co., based in Stratham, N.H., created reserved parking spaces to go along with its own $3,000 cash incentive for employees who buy hybrids.

Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., offers $5,000 cash to purchase and $2,500 to lease low emission cars – not just hybrids – that get at least 45 miles per gallon. Bank of America offers its rebate to any employee who buys a hybrid and lives within 90 miles of the three cities.

Bengt Holmstrom, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the trend toward greater corporate social consciousness is partly a response to recent scandals and record profits, which some see as a sign of greed.

“Companies increasingly need to show they are good citizens,” Holmstrom said.

He added that the Bank of America program could have a downside if investors believe the money would be better spent elsewhere. “It’s going to be interesting to see how the shareholders react,” he said.

Hybrids are powered by a gas engine and an electric motor, increasing fuel efficiency and reducing emissions. The hybrid Honda Civic, for example, gets 50 miles per gallon.

, compared to 34 miles per gallon for the regular Civic, according to But hybrid cars also cost more.

Anne Finucane, global marketing and corporate affairs executive for Charlotte, N.C.-based, Bank of America, said her company’s program was “enlightened self interest” because it will improve local environmental quality, strengthen the company’s appeal to job seekers and attract new customers by boosting its corporate image

In an interview at the company’s Charlotte, N.C., headquarters, Chief Administrative Officer Steele Alphin said, given the bank’s size, it should lead efforts to protect the environment. “Shame on us if we did not,” he said.

He said the company would evaluate the program in the fall to determine if it should be offered to all 202,000 of its employees.

The program was introduced as high gas prices spur economic worry and political posturing. House Republicans floated a proposal – quickly shot down – to give citizens $100 cash to help pay with higher fuel prices.

The Bank of America rebate matches a $3,000 federal tax credit for buying a hybrid. On Wednesday, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney pushed a bill his administration drew up with state Senate leaders that would provide a $2,000 state tax credit, and move the cost of hybrid closer to a regular car. The bill has not been passed by the House.

Romney said the nation must reduce dependence on oil to avoid financing sometimes hostile, oil-rich regimes, and reduce pollution. The Bank of America program shows the nation is serious about better fuel economy, he said.

“So what they’ve done is make an enormous statement,” Romney said. “This is going to have Detroit listening. The whole nation is going to be listening.”

AP-ES-06-07-06 1615EDT

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