Hybrids Queue Up for Express Lanes
By Joseph Popiolkowski , Staff Writer
Five states are sitting as idle as vehicles stalled at rush hour, waiting for federal permission to allow environmentally friendly hybrid cars on their specially designated car-pool lanes.
The hybrids can't gain special access to high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes until Congress flashes a green light because the rush-hour lanes are built and maintained with federal gas tax dollars and are governed by the federal Department of Transportation. A bill that would transfer discretion for hybrids on HOV lanes to the states passed the U.S. House in March and is tucked into a long-delayed transportation bill now creeping through the Senate.
Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida and Georgia have passed legislation to allow single-occupant hybrids, which are powered by an electric motor and traditional gasoline engine for greater fuel efficiency and lower harmful emissions, to use the express lanes typically reserved for vehicles carrying at least two or three passengers. Lawmakers in Massachusetts and New York are considering similar legislation.
For now, Virginia is the only state where hybrids - no matter how many occupants - are free to roam the HOV lanes under a special waiver granted by the federal DOT five years ago.
The practice has been popular in Virginia, especially on the clogged highways near Washington, D.C. In fact, critics say it has worked too well, making HOV lanes just as congested as regular lanes. The Virginia Legislature this session confronted a proposal to take away hybrids' special access to HOV lanes by letting the state's special exemption expire in July 2006, but no action has been taken.
"The purpose of [Virginia's waiver] when it was drawn up was to encourage people to buy hybrids, and that's exactly what it's done," said Scott Hirons, founder of the Northern Virginia-based Committee to Save HOV, a grassroots initiative that advocates against hybrid use in HOV lanes. "Now, when the exemption expires, I hope people are still encouraged to purchase them but for the environmental reasons, not the convenience ones."
In 2004, Virginia ranked second - behind California - in the number of hybrid vehicles registered with 5,613, according to R.L. Polk & Co., an automotive data collection firm.
Hirons, a regular user of Virginia HOV lanes, said he favors the tax credits that 12 states offer in return for a hybrid purchase over the HOV incentive.
"If they continue to allow exemptions, which congest lanes, HOV is going to be an option that's going to go away," he said.
All together, 20 states offer incentives to purchase environmentally friendly hybrid vehicles, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, an industry association based in Washington, D.C. For example, hybrids are exempt from Connecticut's 6 percent sales tax, can garner up to $1,500 in state income tax credit in Oklahoma, and must be purchased for state employee use in Minnesota if the vehicles are reasonably priced. Other states exempt hybrids from emissions testing.
Given the popularity of the vehicles and with demand outpacing production, do states need to offer the incentive at all?
It's impossible to predict what effect removing government incentives would have on hybrid sales, said Matthew Brown, energy program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Florida had the fourth most hybrid registrations in 2004, even without an HOV or financial incentive. The state's law - awaiting action in Congress - would allow hybrids in HOV lanes, and experts say they will keep a close eye on traffic patterns if the measure is enacted.
"We need to make the most efficient use of our HOV facilities," said David Lee, a policy and planning administrator with the Florida transportation department. "We recognize that, like in Northern Virginia, if it becomes too popular we might need to come back and take a second look at it."