Transit Experts Decry Bill That Would Let Hybrids with Solo Drivers Use HOV Lanes
With today’s high gas prices, California's elected officials are racing to shower fuel-efficient hybrid car owners with the kinds of exclusive road privileges all drivers covet, according to the Los Angeles Times newspaper on July 27.
Los Angeles is considering granting free parking this fall to the vehicles. 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. "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 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.
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.
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.
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.