Hybrid Cars Get a Big Push; Not So Fast, Others Say;

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Officials want to give incentives to owners of fuel-efficient vehicles. But transit experts decry a bill that would let solo drivers use HOV lanes.

The Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO — With gas prices so high as to cause vertigo, California’s elected officials are racing to shower fuel-efficient hybrid car owners with the kinds of exclusive road privileges all drivers covet.

Los Angeles is considering granting free parking this fall to the vehicles, which run on both gas and electricity. In Sacramento, lawmakers are on the verge of approving a measure that would allow solo hybrid drivers to use carpool lanes.

Yet even as automakers lobby furiously to include their hybrids, transportation experts are alarmed at any new additions to California’s high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes. Already, 23 of the state’s 56 carpool lanes are at or near capacity, including sections of the Foothill, Century and San Diego freeways in Southern California.

“The lanes that we have in the state are a precious resource for travel,” said Martin Wachs, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley, who owns a Toyota Prius hybrid. “I can think of no rational reason why we should give away capacity to vehicles that will contribute as much to congestion, just because they’re clean fuel.”

Experts who have studied traffic flow say that just a few dozen extra vehicles in a carpool lane in an hour can cause a noticeable slowdown. There were 23,983 hybrids registered in California as of May, and state officials anticipate the number to increase more than fourfold over the next three years.

In written testimony, the California Assn. of Councils of Government last month called the bill irresponsible and said it “fails to recognize the extent of traffic congestion.”

Bay Area transportation officials have raised the strongest objections. They say the measure could scuttle their efforts to encourage more commuters to use express buses, and could cost as much as $2 million a year in lost toll revenue because drivers in some carpool lanes cross toll bridges for free.

Brian D. Taylor, director of UCLA‘s Institute of Transportation Studies, said the bill was “bad policy” because it would attempt to motivate one goal — energy efficiency — by altering high-occupancy vehicle lanes that were designed to address the different objective of improving traffic flow.

“Why don’t we allow nurses and schoolteachers to use HOV lanes? They’re certainly doing good things,” Taylor said. “Do you want to say, ‘We want people to eat more roughage, let’s let those people use HOV lanes as well?’ Just because there are a lot of benefits of hybrid technology, that doesn’t mean there’s a logical nexus between that and HOV lanes.”

The bill would attempt to prevent congestion by limiting the number of hybrid cars with the special privileges to 75,000. Each car would get a distinctive decal so police could know they were permitted in the lanes. They would be in addition to the approximately 6,000 all-electric cars authorized for solo drivers.

The bill also would require the California Department of Transportation to ban hybrids from congested carpool lanes and to stop issuing permits above the number 50,000 if congestion problems were to arise. Caltrans supports the legislation, but a spokesman says the department’s “broad, general” analysis cannot say definitively what its impact would be.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority agreed to support the measure only after the bill was altered to give the MTA a role in declaring particularly congested lanes off-limits to hybrids, said the authority’s lobbyist, Michael Turner.

“There’s been a concern that with the success of the HOV system and lanes, there might not be enough room in some of the lanes for even any more carpools to fit in,” Turner said. “The addition of another class of vehicles has the potential to create even more congestion.”

The California Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the number of hybrids will increase to 110,000 cars in the state within three years.

About half of them are expected to qualify under the bill’s restriction that hybrids must get at least 45 miles per gallon to receive carpool permits. Aside from the Prius, only two other available models meet the bill’s criteria: the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Honda Insight.

Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), the bill’s author, said the limits were designed to encourage auto manufacturers and car buyers to favor models that conserved the most gas.

“Just the cleanest vehicles out there should qualify,” she said. “I’ve heard from quite a few people that they would trade in their existing car for a hybrid because of this carrot.”

Those limits, however, have made a number of transportation officials question how the bill would actually persuade more people to buy the already popular hybrids — especially because there already are waiting lists for would-be Prius purchasers.

Michele St. Martin, a Cal-EPA spokeswoman, said the visibility of the hybrids in the carpool lanes and the publicity from the bill would provide significant motivation for more drivers to buy hybrids. She disputed that the current stream of hybrid buyers would snap up all the carpool lane permits.

Sam Butto, a spokesman for Toyota Motor Sales USA, said that in Virginia, which allows hybrids in carpool lanes, the Prius has been particularly popular. More of the cars are sold there than in any other state except California.

Sev MacPete, an attorney who is president of the Prius Club of San Diego, said: “I don’t think it’s a major incentive for people to buy the car, but it’s certainly a nice piece to have and it makes the right kinds of statements. It might swing some kinds of people to buy.”

Though hybrids have been available for several years, the biggest push for special privileges for their owners has occurred recently. On Friday, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and City Councilman Eric Garcetti proposed exempting hybrid owners from having to feed parking meters. If approved by the City Council, the measure would take effect in September.

In Sacramento, the state bill, AB 2628, easily passed the Assembly and has already won the endorsement of a Senate panel. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Treasurer Phil Angelides, a Democrat who often spars with the governor, are co-sponsoring it, and Hahn supports it. The full Senate is expected to vote on it next month.

The bill also has gotten a big push from Laurie David, wife of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Larry David and an enthusiastic owner of Toyota’s hybrid. She appeared at a news conference in Los Angeles to press for the bill, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, of which she is a trustee, has endorsed it. The Davids’ devotion to the Prius is so intense that his character in the sitcom drives the car. In one episode, he hired a prostitute to ride with him so he could use a carpool lane.

As it stands, even if the Pavley bill passes, California cannot allow the hybrids into carpool lanes against U.S. law without jeopardizing millions in federal aid.

That is because Washington provides highway money only for carpool lanes that are restricted to vehicles with at least two occupants. The only current exemption involves cars that emit no pollution at all, such as those powered solely by electricity.

Florida, Georgia and Arizona have already adopted provisions similar to California’s and are asking to be exempted from the federal multi-passenger rule, which Congress is considering abolishing. California is requesting an exemption. New York lawmakers are also contemplating inviting hybrids into carpool lanes.

In Sacramento, many auto manufacturers making larger hybrids are lobbying to have their upcoming models eligible for carpool lanes. Those new models include the Ford Escape sport utility vehicle, a Lexus SUV and the Chevrolet Silverado pickup. The manufacturers want California lawmakers to delay identifying which hybrids should qualify for the carpool lanes until after Congress acts.

Also among those companies is Toyota, which is preparing to release a hybrid Camry that would not meet the bill’s limit.

Toyota stands out within the industry for its lavish support of Sacramento legislators. The company and its dealers have given $1.5 million to lawmakers and political committees since 2000, records show. The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights lists them as the 12th-largest donor to Schwarzenegger.

“This bill is coming at least five years too late to make any true difference,” said Stuart Cohen, executive director of the Transportation and Land Use Coalition, a group of nonprofits based in Oakland.

“Schwarzenegger and Angelides want to be able to say they’re doing something for the environment, and yet they don’t want to do anything that seems to have any cost.”

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