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Bill would let hybrid drivers go solo in HOV lane

By Tony Bizjak
Sacramento Bee

A legislative proposal to allow drivers of certain hybrid cars to use freeway carpool lanes - even when alone in the car - got off to a zooming start Monday, despite some worries about increasing congestion.

The bill by Southern California Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, comes with notable backing: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Treasurer Phil Angelides, who usually are on opposing sides of political debates.

Pavley's legislation, AB 2628, would make driving easier and quicker for motorists in gas-and-electric-powered vehicles - as long as the vehicle gets at least 45 miles per gallon and meets the state's strictest partial-emissions standards.

Pavley easily won support Monday of the Assembly Transportation Committee in the bill's first test.

She said that giving hybrid cars a boost makes environmental sense in a state loaded with 20 million vehicles, and where drivers pay the nation's highest gas prices.

Her desire, she said, is to encourage automakers to build more hybrid cars focused on higher mileage and to encourage motorists to buy them.

There are an estimated 20,000 hybrids in California today, Pavley said, notably the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid and Honda Insight.

The vehicles save gas by using electrical power to help during acceleration, low-speed driving and uphill driving, and using gasoline for cruising at higher speeds.

Bill sponsors said the action, if approved by the Legislature, would make a statement that California can be a national leader in reducing the nation's reliance on pollution-causing oil.

Pavley said her intent, however, is simple: "I just want to push this new technology, which will have a positive effect on our air quality."

California will need a federal OK to enact the law, but that approval is in the Bush administration's transportation plan, Pavley said.

The bill has support from Schwarzenegger. Angelides, one of the leading Democratic critics of the Schwarzenegger administration, is a cosponsor of the bill, along with the state Air Resources Board.

Angelides has called hybrid vehicles "a transition to a truly zero-emissions future."

Although there has been little opposition to the concept, some transportation officials say they worry about unintended effects.

Despite voting in support of the bill, Assembly Transportation Committee Chairwoman Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach, said she wonders if too many hybrid vehicles could gum up carpool lanes.

"I wish there was some other way" to provide incentives to motorists to buy these cars, she said.

Dennis Fay, executive director of the Alameda County Congestion Management Agency, said his board voted to oppose the bill on two grounds: The high price of gas is already ample incentive to buy hybrids, and "there are many carpool lanes that are close to capacity already, and allowing single-occupant vehicles into carpool lanes would simply congest them and not achieve the goals of increased vehicle occupancy."

In an analysis of the bill, Assembly Transportation Committee consultant Howard Posner wrote that the move also could conflict with the incipient effort in the state toward turning some carpools lanes into toll lanes.

He also said that the bill, as written, doesn't include efficient gasoline-only vehicles that may get more than 45 mpg.

The bill would authorize the Department of Motor Vehicles to give window decals for qualifying hybrids. That number, however, would be limited to 75,000 vehicles, and the bill, if it becomes law, would expire in 2008.

By then, officials estimate the number of hybrids in California will have jumped beyond 110,000, although not all will have met the bill's standards.

To protect the concept of quick carpool lanes, Pavley's bill would give the state the option of banning hybrids from some sections of those lanes if they became too crowded.

Sacramento resident Holly Brickner, whose Prius averages 47 mpg, said she thinks the concept is great.

"Anything the state can do to encourage cars with hybrid technology is incredibly worthwhile," she said.

Statewide, there are 1,100 miles of carpool lanes on more than 4,200 miles of freeways.

In Sacramento, carpool lanes exist on portions of most local highways. Caltrans officials say they hope eventually to link the entire Sacramento freeway system with carpool lanes.

The state budget crisis, however, has stalled the next planned carpool lane, on Highway 50 from Sunrise Boulevard to downtown Sacramento.

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