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Hybrids to cruise in carpool lanes until 2011

California lawmakers are hoping to keep the state’s hybrid-car drivers
whizzing by in the fast lane for another five years after passing
legislation last week that would allow owners of hybrids to drive in carpool
lanes until 2011, even while driving solo.

For more than a year, California motorists driving three models of
hybrids–the Honda Insight, Honda Civic hybrid and Toyota Prius–have been
zipping by traffic in the state’s 1,100 miles of carpool lanes, after the
passage of federal and state statutes. But the California program–popular
among hybrid enthusiasts and some in the environmental community–was set to
expire at the beginning of 2008.

Assemblyman Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, says that he wrote the new legislation, AB
2600, in hopes of continuing to promote ownership of hybrid cars, which are
combined gas-electric vehicles that can get as much as 60 miles-per-gallon
of gasoline. He said that providing access to carpool lanes for solo drivers
is a major perk for hybrid owners.

“People purchase hybrids for different reasons, but if they knew the carpool
program is going to expire next year, they might not buy,” said Lieu. “We
need to do everything we can to encourage the use of alternative-fuel
vehicles and hybrids.”

The bill passed out of both the Senate and Assembly with bipartisan support
and now is headed to governor’s desk for his signature.

Lieu says he is confident that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will sign the
measure because it was the governor’s office that approached him and asked
for hybrids to be included in the legislation. Lieu’s original bill applied
only to alternative-fuel vehicles, such as pure electric cars, not hybrids.
“I had introduced a more modest measure, but the governor’s office asked us
to expand it,” says Lieu.

A spokesman for Gov. Schwarzenegger confirmed that the governor’s office had
worked with Lieu on the legislation, but said Schwarzenegger had not yet
taken a position on the measure.

Schwarzenegger, along with state Treasurer Phil Angelides, were sponsors of
the 2004 legislation, written by Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills,
that created the California carpool-lane program for hybrids.

Schwarzenegger called the original law “common-sense policy” saying it was
“another example of California’s leadership role in the areas of clean air,
alternate-fuel systems, environmentally friendlier vehicles and
transportation funding.”

Lieu’s bill also increases the number of hybrid-carpool permits in the state
from 75,000 to 85,000. The expansion comes just as the Department of Motor
Vehicles is reporting that the hybrid drivers have nearly exhausted the
supply of existing carpool-lane permits.

As of last Friday, the state already had issued 66,545 hybrid decals and had
another 2,944 applications on hand. Add to that the 220 new applications
that pour in every day and the permits are likely to dry up within two
months, according to DMV spokesman Armando Botello.

But some critics say that granting hybrids access to high-occupancy vehicle
(HOV) lanes is an incentive that just doesn’t make economic or environmental
sense.

“The HOV access is redundant. There is a natural market interest in hybrids
with current fuel prices,” says James Moore, the director of USC’s
transportation-engineering program. “People don’t have to be incenticized
with this particular carrot.”

Stuart Cohen, the executive director of the Transportation and Land Use
Coalition, agrees. “When there is already a waiting list for hybrids, it is
absurd to increase the number of vehicles that can get these permits,” says
Cohen, whose organization touts itself as promoting environmental and social
justice.

“It wasn’t good policy when we gave out 75,000 of them and it is really bad
policy to give out more,” Cohen said. “We would love everybody to drive a
hybrid, but we would like hybrid drivers to carpool or sit in traffic like
everybody else.”

With gas prices topping $3 per gallon, hybrids have been selling quickly in
driving-dependent California. According to the DMW, more than 113,000 hybrid
vehicles were registered in California at the beginning of last month, up
from 57,164 in July of 2005 and less than 34,000 the year before, though
only those models that get 45 miles-per-gallon of gasoline are eligible for
the carpool stickers.

The extension of the carpool incentive comes just as federal-tax incentives
for the Toyota Prius–the most popular hybrid model–are set to expire. After
October 1, Prius buyers will lose out on federal tax credits of $1,575.
Lieu says the bill is simply about putting more hybrids on the road.

“I drive a Honda Accord hyrid, so the bill doesn’t apply to me,” said Lieu.
“Actually, I wanted a Toyota Prius, but they didn’t have one at the time.”

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