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HOV exemptionsfor hybrids? Congress considers

Ford Escape Hybrid Travels New York City on One Tank of Gas
Ford's Escape Hybrid was the first gas-electric SUV on the market, debuting in 2004. As hybrids become more available, there's a push to encourage them further by granting them carpool lane exemptions.Stephen Chernin / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

If helping the environment isn’t a good enough reason to buy a hybrid car, lawmakers are contemplating a powerful appeal to drivers’ self-interest: an easier commute.

Legislation by lawmakers from California would let states make their own rules for hybrids in car pool lanes. If enacted, that would enable a California law letting hybrids in the lanes — even without passengers — to take effect.

Other states including Arizona, Connecticut and Georgia are contemplating similar measures and could move forward with them, too. Because federal transportation money helps pay for car pool lanes, the federal government sets the rules for them, and current regulations require cars in the lanes to carry one or more passengers.

“This is a bill whose time has very much come,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who co-sponsored the legislation Tuesday with Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif.

Focus on flexibility
Hybrid cars “are allowing us to enhance the environment, reduce air pollution in California, and yet we’re not allowed to do this,” Issa said. “This bill will allow that to happen, not just in California but for all 50 states.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed California’s law in September. The Republican governor has made improving air quality a centerpiece of his environmental agenda, setting an example by commissioning General Motors to develop a hydrogen-powered Hummer for him (though there are not yet enough fueling stations for the vehicle to be practical for regular driving).

Federal law already allows states to open their car pool lanes to electric and alternative-powered vehicles, so the hydrogen Hummer could qualify. But the federal exception does not apply to hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight, which are powered by a gas engine in combination with an electric motor.

Overcrowded HOV lanes?
The hybrids are becoming increasingly popular. A 2000 Virginia law allowing them into car pool lanes sparked such huge sales that carpoolers have begun complaining of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Virginia moved forward with its measure despite the conflict with federal law, and federal officials allowed the state to continue while Congress resolved the issue.

California’s law requires hybrid drivers to get decals from the Department of Motor Vehicles to enter car pool lanes. Only 75,000 will be issued, an attempt to avoid the overcrowding Virginia has seen.

The California law, which sunsets after three years, also applies only to hybrids that get at least 45 miles per gallon, a standard that’s now met only by the Toyota and Honda versions and excludes models made by Ford and others.

Rival 10 percent bill
Ford and others in the auto industry oppose California’s law. They support more broadly written federal legislation by Missouri Republicans Sen. Jim Talent and Rep. Sam Graves that would open the door to any hybrid vehicles that get 10 percent or greater fuel efficiency than comparable non-hybrid versions.

Both the House and the Senate agreed to a provision allowing hybrids onto car pool lanes as part of a transportation bill that passed both chambers last year, but it never made it to President Bush’s desk.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is introducing a companion measure to Issa and Sherman’s House bill in the Senate.