Is Allowing Low-Emissions Vehicles in Carpool Lanes A Good Idea?

carpool poster.jpg
Get ready for some company, lads...
If you're on the fence about whether your next car will be a gas-guzzling Chevy Tahoe or a gas-free Tesla Model S Sedan (only $49,900 -- such a bargain!)  this might help you make a decision.

Yesterday, the state Senate passed a bill that would allow advanced technology vehicles -- such as plug-in hybrids and yet-to-be produced hydrogen-fueled vehicles -- to join carpools and hybrid cars in the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane, regardless of how many passengers are within.

But the bill stipulates that only 40,000 stickers will be available to these high-tech, clean alternatives. And this self-imposed limit is watering down the bill's impact -- and usefulness -- according to one expert. 

Global warming policy expert Louise Bedsworth, a researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California, says swapping out just 40,000 of California's 25 million cars with greener technology will have no immediate impact on the state's total emission levels. (In case you were wondering, 40,000 cars represent not quite one fifth of one percent of the state's total vehicles).

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If you've got a Thomas Edison-model electric car, like this one from 1913, it's your lucky day...

However, she thinks the policy will help bolster the green technology market by increasing demand for the vehicles and, consequently, lowering the costs. This is the policy's "long-term environmental benefit," she says.

Sen. Leland Yee, who authored the bill, would hand out stickers left and right if he could, says his chief of staff, Adam Keigwin. But, Kegwin said, Yee's colleagues atop the Senate transportation committee would greenlight the car legislation only if it was limited to 40,000 vehicles. Their motivation, according to Kegwin: Unlimited access to the carpool lane would supposedly induce "degradation and congestion." 

Current hybrid owners will be pleased to know that the bill also gives them another six months to take advantage of access to the HOV lane, which was originally set to expire at the end of this year.

Between 2005 and 2007, California drivers were entitled to paste stickers on their hybrid vehicles that allowed them full access to the HOV lane. Advocates of that program claim it has led to an additional 100,000 hybrids being purchased in California. 

But Bedsworth says the "general consensus" is that hybrid car sales would have been the same even without the HOV lane incentive.

There are, however, other programs being considered that may have larger-scale consequences. For example, there are "fee-bates," that provide clean vehicle owners rebates. These are funded by fees imposed on drivers of the most polluting vehicles. They affect the "entire vehicle fleet," whereas the HOV lane access includes only a fraction of it, says Bedsworth.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down within the next two weeks. Since both auto manufacturers and the environmental community support it, Keigwin expects the governor will, too.

Photo of Edison car   |   Wikimedia Commons

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