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Hybrids Await Their Turn on the Fast Track

Times Staff Writer

Pattie Lorusso figured she was doing the right thing for the environment -- and for her sanity -- when she bought a Honda Civic hybrid three years ago.

Not only would she help cut smog, Lorusso welcomed lower gas bills and the possibility of using carpool lanes by herself on her 130-mile round-trip commute to a Hollywood sound editing job.

But despite assurances that access to carpool lanes was imminent, she and 20,000 other owners of high-mileage hybrid cars in California are still waiting.

A state law allowing single-occupant hybrids that get 45 miles per gallon or better to use diamond lanes took effect Jan. 1, but federal action is necessary before it can be implemented. Options include a federal waiver or legislation that give states the right to decide who can use carpool lanes.

Although several California legislators are working on a solution, no one can say for sure when hybrid drivers will be allowed to zoom past other commuters on traffic-choked freeways.

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It has been a long and frustrating delay, said Lorusso, 46, who moved to Toluca Lake from Ventura last year.

“It was part of the sales pitch, and I’ve been waiting ever since,” she said. “I’ve been going online every month to see if it’s gone through.”

California’s law, which expires in 2008, applies to vehicles that get at least 45 mpg and are among the cleanest-burning in their class. Qualifying owners would have to apply for a special decal from the Department of Motor Vehicles before entering carpool lanes.

So far, only hybrid models of the Honda Civic and Insight, as well as the Toyota Prius, qualify, said Susan Little, an aide to Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, (D-Agoura Hills), who wrote the legislation.

Pavley thought it would be a simple matter to win the federal waiver necessary to implement the law. But an omnibus transportation bill that included the waiver stalled in Congress last year, she said.

Federal Highway Administration officials say it may take more than a procedural change to win approval.

Federal law stipulates that, with few exceptions, vehicles using high-occupancy lanes must have at least two occupants, said Nancy Singer, an administration spokeswoman.

“Right now, hybrids don’t meet the qualification, so there has to be some change,” Singer said.

The federal government gets a say in who uses the lanes because it pays most of the costs of building them. California could defy Washington, D.C., and proceed without a waiver, as the state of Virginia is doing.

But California, which has 40% of the nation’s carpool lanes, does not want to risk losing federal funding for them, state lawmakers say.

Two bills by California lawmakers will seek to change the balance of power by giving states the authority to decide who can use carpool lanes.

Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Darrell E. Issa (R-Vista) are expected to announce today that they are introducing a bill that would transfer that authority to states. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has said she will soon introduce similar legislation.

“The federal government did put up the money to build these lanes, but the states are in a much better position to decide who should use them,” Sherman said.

Sherman said he expected opposition from carmakers who don’t offer hybrid models or whose hybrids don’t meet the mileage standards required by California’s law.

“My goal is to get those companies to manufacture high-mileage hybrids,” Sherman said. “The whole purpose is to get better gas mileage and to have less pollution and less dependence on foreign oil.”

Lorusso doesn’t pay much attention to the policy debates. But she believes access to preferential lanes would motivate more people to choose hybrids.

“I’m avidly against SUVs,” she said. “Too many people are not thinking about the oil crisis and what’s going to happen in the future. All they care about is whatever is convenient for them.”

Two others at Lorusso’s workplace recently purchased hybrids, including Steve Pollard, co-president of Aspect Ratio. Pollard gave up a BMW 740 for a Toyota Prius after driving his brother-in-law’s hybrid vehicle.

Though he doesn’t encounter carpool lanes on his commute from Pacific Palisades, Pollard said it would be nice to know he was entitled to use them.

“You could just blow right by on the freeway,” he said. “That is probably a good incentive to get others to do the same.”


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