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Behind the Wheel

Drivers Who Go Green Get a Red-Carpet Ride

Free parking at LAX, toll-free toll roads and use of freeway carpool lanes even without passengers are perks available to owners of low-emission cars.

July 31, 2001|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Who says it's not easy being green?

Eco-minded folks who drive low-emission vehicles have never had it so good.

The state gives Californians grants of up to $3,000 to buy electric vehicles. Motorists can park such clean, green machines free at Los Angeles International Airport.

Electric cars also get prime parking spaces at some shopping malls and free passage over public toll roads. Several stores and government agencies, such as the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, recharge electric cars free.

In the city of Los Angeles, electric vehicles and natural gas-powered vehicles can park on the streets without feeding the meters.

But perhaps the most enticing incentive for traffic-weary Californians to go green is a law that allows electric and natural gas-powered vehicles to use the state's 964 miles of carpool lanes without bringing a passenger along.

The law took effect one year ago, and so far the drivers of 3,661 low-emission vehicles, or more than 60% of those that qualify, have signed up, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles. For an $8 fee, the DMV provides an identifying decal for clean-fuel vehicles that qualify for the carpool program.

The number of vehicles with the decals is only a fraction of the 27 million registered cars and trucks in the state. Still, low-emission advocates hope the program will help boost demand for clean-air cars, push auto makers to begin mass production and thereby reduce costs. Though interest in clean-fuel vehicles is on the rise, production quotas remain so low that the cars are hard to come by.

The exclusive club of motorists who drive clean-fuel cars say the chance to ride in carpool lanes is an added bonus, putting them on easy street.

"The carpool lanes are just extraordinary," said Greg Hanssen, an electric car engineer who drives a General Motors EV1 from his home in Irvine to his job in Monrovia.

During his commute, he zips along on carpool lanes on the Santa Ana Freeway, the Artesia Freeway and the 605 Freeway.

Although California's system of carpool lanes is incomplete--only 6% of the state's 15,100 miles of freeways are reserved for carpools--Hanssen and others say their commute times have been cut by up to 60%.

"Now I can count on going to the airport and getting there on time," said Margaret Cheng, a retired planning consultant from Monterey Park who also drives an EV1 and has qualified for a carpool decal.

"Whenever I need to use it, it's a huge improvement," she said.

California is not unique. Virginia, Arizona, Georgia and Hawaii have also given low-emission vehicles access to their carpool lanes.

But the irony of such incentive programs is that they encourage motorists to buy vehicles that are in extremely short supply.

Most major American auto makers are not currently producing electric vehicles for freeway use. The auto industry has argued that such cars are impractical and unmarketable. Auto industry officials have bristled at a requirement imposed by state air quality officials that they begin mass production of electric cars by 2003.

Natural gas-powered cars and hybrid vehicles that run on gasoline and electricity are more readily available, but many of the state and local incentives apply only to electric vehicles.

As a result, a small group of motorists enjoys a carload of fringe benefits.

"It's a fairly elite club now," Hanssen said.

Not everyone supports such incentive programs.

When former Assemblyman Jim Cunneen (R-Cupertino) proposed the bill that opened carpool lanes to low-emission vehicles, some critics argued that carpool lanes were designed to encourage people to share a ride and thus reduce freeway congestion--not to encourage people to drive low-emission cars. Former Gov. Pete Wilson used that argument when he vetoed a similar bill in 1996.

The Orange County Transportation Authority opposed Cunneen's bill, saying that if the carpool lanes are underused, the state should give carpool access to motorists who are willing to pay a toll.

This concept--converting high-occupancy-vehicle lanes into high-occupancy toll lanes--has been proposed by several transportation experts. State officials say they are considering the idea.

The most common argument against so-called HOT lanes is that they could create a class division on the freeways: free-flowing carpool lanes for affluent motorists who can afford the tolls, and congested lanes for everyone else.

Perhaps the biggest hitch with the state and local incentive programs is that they are not widely known.

Some eco-motorists say they have been targeted by law enforcement officers and angry motorists who don't know that low-emission vehicles are exempt from some rules of the road.

Al Atwood, an engineer who drives his electric car from his Palo Alto home to his job in Santa Clara, said the carpool lanes have cut his commute from 45 minutes to about 15 minutes each way.

"It's a tremendous advantage," he said.

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