Friday, January 7, 2005

As Hybrid Cars Multiply, So Do Carpooling Gripes
By Steven Ginsberg and Carol Morello - Staff Writers

A surge in the number of hybrid vehicles has left carpool lanes nearly as congested as the regular lanes they are intended to relieve, a Virginia transportation task force said yesterday.

A detailed study of carpool lanes on Interstate 95 found that the number of hybrids more than tripled between last spring and October. State transportation officials fear that the trend will continue as more hybrids enter the market and more commuters take advantage of the exemption allowing them to ride alone in such vehicles.

The findings reflect the sentiments of carpool-lane users, who have inundated state officials with complaints about increased delays and congestion over the past six months. Many blame hybrids.

"For every two cars, there's one hybrid," said Cora Seballos, who carpools daily from Springfield to the District. "Since September, usually the regular lanes have less traffic" than the carpool lanes. Seballos said she has to leave home a half-hour earlier because of the increased congestion.

On a Web site devoted to slugs, <>, the people who form carpools at set spots so they can use high-occupancy vehicle lanes, the issue has dominated. The forum "Hybrids -- a threat to car pooling?" had drawn more than 11,550 readers as of yesterday afternoon; only a couple of other forums drew as many as 1,000.

Typical was this posting from a user named Viper: "Whether you look at it as an environmental issue or as a congestion issue, the result is the same -- HOV 3 is three times better than HOV 1 for the situation as a whole. The rule NEEDS to change soon." HOV-3 is the state's designation for a lane requiring three occupants. Viper's "HOV 1" is a smack at solo motorists in carpool lanes.

The hybrid exemption is scheduled to expire in June 2006, and the HOV task force of Virginia transportation officials and experts urged again in their second report yesterday that state leaders not extend it. In 2003, the task force also recommended instituting severe fines and increased police presence to crack down on HOV violators. Fines were raised to as much as $1,000, enforcement was increased and repeat offenders became subject to moving-violation penalties and points on their licenses.

Hybrids use a combination of gas and electric power. Current models get up to 60 miles per gallon and emit considerably smaller amounts of harmful gases than conventional cars. State rules allow owners of the Ford Escape hybrid, Toyota Prius and Honda Civic and Insight to drive solo in carpool lanes.

According to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, the Washington area ranks with California as the country's leading markets for hybrids.

Several car dealers in Northern Virginia said it's because of the HOV exemption. "I'd say 95 percent of the people who buy a Prius say it's to get into HOV," said Jay Taye, sales manager at Ourisman Fairfax Toyota. "They talk about the tax break and the HOV, and once in a while they say they prefer it for the gas mileage as well."

Low-emission vehicles were first allowed to use HOV lanes in 1994 to lessen the region's air pollution, but few drivers took advantage until hybrids were included in 2000. That year, there were 32 cars in all of Virginia with "clean fuel" tags -- a designation necessary to use HOV lanes.

By April 2003, that number had grown to 2,500 in Northern Virginia, and by the end of 2004 the region had 6,800 hybrid vehicles registered with "clean special fuel" plates.

In March, a traffic count on the HOV lanes of I-95 revealed 480 clean fuel vehicles -- about 8 percent of the cars that used the lanes at the time. By October, that count on I-95 more than tripled, to 1,700, 18 percent of all HOV traffic and enough to fill a single highway lane for an hour.

The growth in hybrids has helped increase the number of cars on the lanes to 1,900 an hour, beyond their operating capacity of 1,500 to 1,800 per lane an hour.

The HOV lanes are critical to the region's transportation network in part because they allow bus service to run smoothly. If they become chronically congested, slugs and other carpoolers could resume driving themselves, adding thousands of cars to the region's roads.

State officials released a letter yesterday from the Federal Highway Administration written in December expressing concern about the proliferation of hybrids in HOV lanes. The letter asked Virginia to increase enforcement and pursue other options to cut down on backups. The hybrid exemption is counter to federal law but has been allowed to continue as Congress debates possible revisions.

"In light of this study, I think we have to reevaluate our position," said Del. Brian J. Moran (Alexandria), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, who backed the hybrid provision as recently as May.

Some dealers consider the end to the HOV perk an inevitable byproduct of the hybrids' success. "When they first came out, I thought it was a good incentive," said Fernando Lobo, sales manager at Bill Page Honda near Falls Church. "Now everybody's trying to make hybrids. When they sell at volume, I knew that one of these days the HOV lanes wouldn't function anymore as HOV lanes."

News Home Page