Motorists who drive solo in fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles will gain access to carpool lanes in California under a massive transportation bill approved by Congress on Friday that includes billions of dollars for projects statewide.
The $286.5-billion bill, the first major transportation funding measure since 1998, cleared the House and Senate by large bipartisan votes. California will receive roughly $23 billion for highway projects -- a return of about 92 cents for every dollar in gas taxes the state sends to Washington.
By granting carpool privileges to fuel-efficient hybrids across the nation, the spending bill authorizes California to implement legislation that has been on hold since Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed it eight months ago.
The federal government gets a say in who can use carpool lanes because it provides most of the money to build them.
"The federal transportation bill is a great victory for California," Schwarzenegger said. "The legislation contains much-needed funding that complements state and local efforts to improve our transportation system."
The California law, which expires in 2008, grants carpool access to hybrids that are the cleanest running in their class and get at least 45 miles to the gallon. Smaller hybrids such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight qualify, while larger SUV models might not.
Hybrid owners must obtain a special sticker from the Department of Motor Vehicles before using carpool lanes.
Supporters of the change believe it will encourage the use of the energy-efficient vehicles and reduce reliance on foreign oil. But critics, including some traffic engineers, fear the new rules will clog carpool lanes without providing much benefit. They note that sales of hybrids are already brisk without added incentives.
Randall Halcomb, co-editor of Autoblog.com, an automotive consumer website, has been critical of efforts to ease carpool restrictions to accommodate more hybrids, which, he said, might not be any more fuel efficient than a conventional car.
"You can have one person in a hybrid and two people in a regular car that gets 30 miles per gallon, and essentially they have the same fuel efficiency," Halcomb said. "In many cases, this kind of law is a knee-jerk reaction to give the appearance of greenness. But you're no better off than driving a regular economy car."
There are about 20,000 hybrid owners in California, which has 40% of the nation's carpool lanes. The vehicles use small internal-combustion engines in combination with electric motors to increase gas mileage and reduce air pollution.
At the Toyota dealership in Glendale, salesman Jesse Rivas was thrilled that the new law was passed, saying it would spur even more sales of the fast-selling Prius, which is officially rated at 60 miles per gallon on city streets, though actual fuel mileage is generally lower. The popular electric-gas cars range from $22,000 to $26,000.
"We've all been waiting for this," Rivas said. "With gas and the economy the way it is, people want a break."
Nearby, Leah Buturain and her husband, Ed Schneider, of Los Feliz were shopping for a hybrid. News of Congress' action bolstered their desire for a car.
"The whole point is not to burn more oil," Buturain said. "Look at what we're doing to the ozone layer. Our generation is so shortsighted about our grandkids' kids. We can't wait any longer to do something about it."
But at the Honda dealership in Van Nuys, customer Robert Nava of North Hollywood said the new privilege was not enough of an incentive for him to get a hybrid.
He was looking to buy a gas-burning Accord, even after it was pointed out to him that the model comes in a hybrid.
"I don't like those kind of cars," Nava said, shaking his head. "Not the style ... or anything."
The carpool lane privileges were sought by Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Darrell Issa (R-Vista) as well as Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and George Allen (R-Va.).
"This is a major step forward in our efforts to encourage lower fuel consumption by providing an incentive for drivers to use hybrid, fuel-efficient vehicles," Feinstein said.
The federal hybrid provision applies nationwide and requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to define what an energy-efficient, low-emissions hybrid vehicle is within 180 days.
The definition would force California to change its law only if the federal mileage requirements are higher than the state's. Officials don't believe the carpool lanes will be opened to hybrids until after the EPA completes its work.
Sherman said the federal parameters could be set lower for other states to accommodate lower-mileage hybrids such as sport utility vehicles and trucks.
Besides California, Virginia is the only other state to grant carpool access to solo motorists in hybrid vehicles.
"We need to give hybrids a push, and we need to encourage manufacturers to retool and make more of them," Sherman said. "Nothing will do this faster than having a high demand for hybrids."