Hybrid car owners anxious to cruise California's car pool lanes are in for a January disappointment. Their reward for getting 45 miles per gallon or better is caught up in Washington politics.
Though the California Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed to open the lanes as of Jan. 1 to single-occupant hybrid cars that get 45 mpg or better, the U.S. government hasn't approved a waiver to allow it on federal highways in the state.
Backers of the law said it might be months before the fuel-efficient cars are allowed in the fast lane in California, if ever.
"People thought that the federal approval was pretty automatic," said Sev MacPete, president of the Toyota Prius Club of San Diego, which boasts 150 hybrid car owners. "Who knows when it'll happen, and it's possible it may never happen."
"I didn't anticipate the political opposition potentially of the automobile manufacturers," said Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, a Democrat and author of the bill that received enthusiastic support from Schwarzenegger.
Detroit carmakers tried unsuccessfully to stop it, saying the change would unfairly reward competitors Honda and Toyota. Their hybrids are the only ones so far that get better than 45 mpg. Ford's hybrid Escape SUV is rated at 33 mpg.
State transportation officials were also wary, saying the lanes were intended only for multi-occupant vehicles.
Though Pavley said Schwarzenegger should help clear the federal roadblock, his administration is staying mum. Virginia has allowed hybrids onto car pool lanes without a waiver, but the federal government can retaliate by withholding highway money.
The idea is to eventually let up to 75,000 hybrid cars use the lanes in California, and many car dealers have stressed the extra benefit when selling the automobiles, which run on a combination of gas and electricity.
"We use that pitch a lot, that you'll be able to use it in carpool lanes," said David Coombs, assistant sales manager at Mel Rapton Honda in Sacramento. "I thought it was going to take effect in January; I hadn't heard anything to the contrary."
'Half a year at least'
A waiver was tucked into a federal transportation bill before Congress, but the package stalled. Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., said he'll reintroduce the idea soon, but advised patience.
"If Washington does take action it'll be half a year at least," he said.
Supporters fear thousands of single-occupant hybrid car owners will slip into the fast lanes Jan. 1 without knowing it's illegal — and the California Highway Patrol promises to ticket them.
The limbo is frustrating those who bought the cars to get to work faster.
"It's a nice car," said Ken Kaufman, a college administrator who lives 40 miles east of Los Angeles. "But I never would have bought it had I not thought I could use the diamond lanes."