SACRAMENTO — Owners of hybrid cars could use freeway carpool lanes, even with a single driver during rush hour, under legislation approved Thursday by the Assembly and supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Despite near-certain approval in California, the new law would not take effect unless the Bush administration granted permission to the state. Federal transportation officials are pushing their own plan that could open the door for hybrid cars in carpool lanes.
Despite complaints that commuter lanes have become clogged, the California legislation is designed to boost sales of hybrid cars by rewarding drivers with easier commutes. California has more freeway miles, more cars, more hybrid vehicles and more carpool lanes than any other state.
"This is a win, win, win -- cleaning up our air, reducing dependence on foreign oil and saving money at the pump," said Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), author of the measure.
Estimates of the number of hybrid cars in California vary from 20,000 to 50,000, still a fraction of the 29 million vehicles on the road. The Honda Insight, Honda Civic Hybrid and the Toyota Prius are the biggest sellers.
Pavley's bill would require hybrid cars made after 2005 to have strict new anti-smog standards and achieve at least 45 miles per gallon to use carpool lanes. Hybrids made before 2005 also must get 45 miles per gallon but would not be subject to the newer smog standards.
The legislation also would limit the number of hybrid cars allowed in carpool lanes to 75,000 statewide. Drivers would have to get a special decal from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The entire law, if approved, would expire in 2008 -- giving officials a chance to judge if the hybrids were disrupting the flow of traffic. By that time, transportation officials estimate, California will have about 110,000 hybrid cars on the road.
The Pavley legislation passed the Assembly by a 55-14 vote, with only Republicans opposing it -- on grounds that the government should not infringe on people's ability to drive wherever they want.
"It's not the job of the Legislature to promote politically correct products," said Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy (R-Monrovia), who said the legislation would turn already crowded carpool lanes into "a parking lot."
Caltrans estimates that allowing hybrid cars in carpool lanes would add an additional two minutes of commuting time in highly congested areas and make no difference when traffic flows were normal.
One Republican lawmaker noted that allowing hybrid cars to use carpool lanes with a single occupant would use more gasoline than a regular car with several passengers because, in the latter case, fewer cars would be on the road.
"We're actually more efficient if we have higher-occupancy vehicles in the HOV lanes than a single person in a hybrid car," said Assemblyman Doug La Malfa (R-Richvale), who voted no.
Passage in the state Senate and approval by Schwarzenegger are expected. The Republican governor has been trying to bolster his environmentalist credentials by proposing a "hydrogen highway" of fuel-efficient cars and working to convert his gas-guzzling Hummers to use hydrogen fuel.
Even if the legislation becomes law, however, California will need permission from the federal government to allow hybrids in commuter lanes. A few days before he was recalled from office, former Gov. Gray Davis requested a waiver from the Bush administration, but he was turned down.
The administration instead has proposed allowing cars with high fuel efficiency -- more than 45 mpg -- to use carpool lanes. The plan, pending in Congress, also would require that carpool lanes didn't get overburdened because of the inclusion of hybrids -- by making sure that all cars were moving at a fast clip in the lanes.
"The president wants states to be able to do what it takes to keep traffic moving, get people home to their families on time and protect our environment," Mary Peters, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, said in a prepared statement.