updated 2/11/2007 4:56:11 AM ET 2007-02-11T09:56:11

Three models of small hybrid cars will be permitted to use car pool lanes on area freeways under an experiment that also will ban some alternative-fuel vehicles that currently use the special lanes.

The federally authorized pilot project was announced Friday by Gov. Janet Napolitano’s office. It will permit the Honda Insight, Honda Civic Hybrid and Toyota Prius to use the 73 miles of high-occupancy vehicle lanes if owners get required new plates and special permits.

Hybrid vehicles run on either gasoline or self-generated electricity.

“We’re using a variety of strategies to begin to clear the air in Arizona,” Napolitano said in a statement. “Drivers who make the commitment to clean air and energy efficiency will get an easier commute. That seems like a good trade to me.”

The state plans to issue 10,000 of the hybrid-vehicle permits on a first-come first-serve basis. There are 9,000 of those models registered in Arizona, officials said.

Bi-fuel vehicles are out
While hybrids are in, bi-fuel vehicles are out, under the program.

Bi-fuel vehicles typically use gasoline but also are equipped to use an alternative fuel such as compressed natural gas.

Critics have said that many of these vehicles in Arizona — particularly large utility vehicles and large pickup trucks — were converted to be able to use an alternative fuel only so the purchasers could qualify for tax breaks.

State law has been permitting alternative fuel vehicles to use HOV lanes. But state Department of Transportation spokesman Doug Nintzel said the federal government had been threatening to impose sanctions against Arizona because its authorization for bi-fuel vehicles does not conform with federal restrictions.

Republican state Senate Majority Leader Thayer Verschoor said lawmakers would review the situation, in part because they are considering proposed legislation on carpool lanes.

Nintzel said the three hybrid vehicles were chosen under federal fuel-efficiency criteria that requires at least a 45 percent fuel savings compared with non-hybrid versions of the same model.

“It comes down to what the federal government is willing to allow at this point,” he said.

Federal Highway Administration spokesman Doug Hecox said the experiment is intended to gather data on how such things as vehicle purchasing trends and driver behavior affect traffic patterns and energy efficiency.

The state’s announcement said the pilot program takes effect immediately but Nintzel said there would be a 90-day phase-in period.

Officials said the experiment would last indefinitely while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency works out permanent rules on use of the lanes.

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