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Carpool Passes Go Fast

Times Staff Writer

A day after he signed the papers on his new metallic-blue Honda Civic hybrid, Steve Giang was rushing Thursday to file a different kind of paperwork.

Like many hybrid owners, Giang was seeking special decals from the state allowing him to take advantage of a top perk of owning the fuel-efficient car: the right to drive solo in freeway carpool lanes.

Only a year after the program was introduced, state officials are perhaps weeks away from capping the number of special permits for hybrid cars to drive in the state’s high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

Officials set a maximum of 75,000 permits. And as of Thursday, they had received 74,108 applications and issued 62,355 permits.

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“At this point, there’s no guarantee you’re going to get a sticker,” said Karen Caesar, a spokeswoman for the California Air Resources Board, which manages the program. “The program is not closed yet, but people need to be aware it’s very limited and very successful and popular.”

The looming shortage places California’s controversial hybrid program at a crossroads.

Hybrid sales are booming, largely because of high gas prices and concerns about the environment but also because of the carpool permits the state offers. State officials say the Department of Motor Vehicles is receiving about 220 applications a day for hybrid stickers.

But allowing solo hybrid drivers to use the high-occupancy vehicle lanes has drawn the ire of some carpoolers who say the extra cars are slowing their commutes and clogging the lanes during rush hour.

When the Legislature allowed solo drivers of hybrids into carpool lanes, officials planned to have the pilot program expire in 2008.

But state officials now say the program will fill up well before then.

It’s possible that the Legislature will increase the number of permits that are allowed.

But that will probably not occur until the California Department of Transportation completes a study on whether the addition of hybrids is slowing traffic in the carpool lanes.

“Anything is possible,” Caesar said. “The legislators can choose to extend the program. They can choose to let other cars in. Maybe the next generation of cars will be more fuel efficient. It’s malleable.”

Solo access to the carpool lane is available only to owners of hybrid cars that get at least 45 miles per gallon, a distinction that applies to just the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic and Insight.

That has angered owners whose cars don’t qualify for the permits. Toyota and Honda make other hybrids that don’t meet the state standards for carpool permits, as do Ford, Lexus and other carmakers.

Critics have long criticized the program, saying hybrids aren’t that much more fuel efficient than some gas-powered cars.

Carpoolers have said hybrid owners drive too slowly, slowing down the lanes and defeating the advantage they offer.

But that meant nothing to Giang as he quickly filled out his form and wrote a check for $8 to get the four yellow stickers needed to drive his Civic in the special lanes.

“It’s the No. 1 reason why I got a hybrid,” said Giang, 32, a manager of a wholesale food company. “It’s tough commuting from Walnut to downtown Los Angeles. I’m mailing it in today.”

Tony Iskander, vice president of Goudy Honda in Alhambra -- where Giang bought his car -- said he was worried about what effect the permit caps would have on sales.

“We estimate about 20-30% of hybrid customers were on the borderline of buying and chose to because of the extra incentive of being able to drive in the carpool lane,” Iskander said. “Will it hurt business? Maybe a little. But as long as gas is $3 or $3.50 a gallon, people will continue to buy hybrids because of the good gas mileage first.”

At Symes Toyota of Pasadena, the ever-popular Prius is being sold at a rate of 15 to 20 a month. A potential customer could be on a waiting list for weeks or months.

So it came as no surprise to the dealership’s general manager, Javier Arroyo, that the permits would go so quickly.

“People will buy these just to have a chance to be in the carpool lane,” Arroyo said. “But I don’t believe it will affect sales. It’s still about the gas.”

Symes Toyota customer Casey Schaeffer considers himself lucky to have his permits affixed to his Prius.

“I was just thinking about when they were going to run out,” said Schaeffer, 20, who was receiving a 5,000-mile checkup. “I went to LAX the other day and thought it was so much more convenient driving in the carpool lane. I felt like a king.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

How Do Hybrids Offer a Life in the Fast Lane?

Q&A;

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Question: What are the state’s rules for allowing solo drivers in hybrid cars to use carpool lanes?

Answer: Owners of the most fuel-efficient hybrids can drive in freeway carpool lanes without passengers if they receive decals from the state.

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Q: Which cars are eligible?

A: California law grants carpool access to hybrids that are the cleanest-running and get at least 45 miles per gallon. The state says only three hybrids -- the Honda Civic, Honda Insight and Toyota Prius -- meet the requirement. That leaves other hybrids, including the Honda Accord, Lexus RX 400h and Toyota Highlander, ineligible for the carpool lanes.

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Q: Why is the hybrid program now at a crossroads?

A: The state legislation allowing hybrids in carpool lanes set a cap of 75,000 cars for the program. Officials expect to hit that cap long before the 2008 deadline.

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Q: What happens then?

A: It’s possible the Legislature will extend the limit, but that’s not a certainty.

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Q: How do carpoolers feel about the addition of hybrids?

A: Some carpoolers have complained that the hybrids are slowing down their commutes by clogging the lanes at rush hour and because some hybrid drivers travel at slower speeds in order to save gas.

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Q: Have hybrids jammed the carpool lanes?

A: There is little evidence this has become a widespread problem. But Caltrans is conducting a study to measure the effects of hybrids in the lanes.

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Q: Will people be less apt to buy hybrids if they don’t have solo access to the carpool lanes?

A: That remains unclear. Customers said they bought hybrids to save money on gas and to help the environment. But access to carpool lanes is a definite selling point.

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Q: Where can I get more information about the program?

A: The Department of Motor Vehicles has more details, and a carpool lane application, on its website: www.dmv.ca.gov/vr/decal.htm


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