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In California, bill aims to give hybrid cars a pass

Solo drivers would get HOV permits

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- 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 admit solo hybrid drivers into car pool lanes.

Yet even as automakers lobby furiously to include their hybrids, transportation specialists are alarmed at any new additions to California's high-occupancy vehicle, or HOV, lanes. Already, 23 of the state's 56 car pool lanes are at or near capacity.

"The lanes . . . are a precious resource for travel," said Martin Wachs, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, 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."

Specialists who have studied traffic flow say that just a few dozen extra vehicles in a car pool 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 Association of Councils of Government last month called the bill irresponsible and said it "fails to recognize the extent of traffic congestion."

San Francisco 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 car pool 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 would know it was permitted in the lanes.

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 car pool 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, an Agoura Hills Democrat and the bill's author, said the limits were designed to get automakers 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 spokeswoman for the California EPA, said the visibility of the hybrids in the car pool lanes and the publicity from the bill would provide significant motivation for more drivers to buy hybrids.

But as it stands, even if the Pavley bill passes, California cannot allow the hybrids into car pool lanes against US law without jeopardizing millions in federal aid. That is because Washington provides highway money only for car pool lanes that are restricted to vehicles with at least two occupants.

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