Stickerless drivers stuck

Times Staff Writer

Rushing to beat an impending state cap on permits that allow the drivers of hybrid cars to drive solo in carpool lanes, William Ha sent in his paperwork soon after purchasing his Toyota Prius last month.

But he was too late.

So many people had applied for the permits that officials ran out before they received Ha’s.

“It was heartbreaking,” said the 24-year-old financial analyst, who commutes from Fountain Valley to downtown Los Angeles each weekday. “I heard they were running out, and I wanted to purchase it as soon as possible so I could get the stickers.”


In an effort to prevent carpool lanes from becoming clogged with solo hybrid drivers, state lawmakers set an initial cap of 75,000 cars that would be allowed to cruise the carpool lanes. Faced with high demand, the Legislature voted to allow 10,000 more hybrids in the lanes starting Jan. 1. Demand was so high that the state ran out of permits in four weeks.

“Every consumer who was looking to get a hybrid wanted to make sure they could get the stickers,” said Michael Jafari, general sales manger at the Kolbe Honda dealership in Reseda. “I don’t think people are going to be happy.”

Only the most fuel-efficient hybrids -- those that average 45 miles to the gallon or more -- are allowed in carpool lanes under the state program. Just three models meet those qualifications: the Toyota Prius, the Honda Civic hybrid and the now-discontinued Honda Insight.

Buyers who have known about the looming cap have played a frantic game in the last month, obsessively calling the DMV to check on their applications and mailing forms in by express mail, sometimes twice, applicants said in interviews.

Attorney Kathy O’Brien, 40, who regularly commutes from Orange County to San Bernardino County, received her stickers Jan. 29.

“It was like Christmas!” O’Brien said. “This is why I spent over 25 grand on the car -- just to get that sticker. Time was everything to me.”


Linda Ashmore, 38, was still in limbo Sunday. Ashmore and her husband, Bob, frantically sent off their paperwork via certified mail a day after they bought a Prius on Jan. 19.

They have since been checking several times a day to see if the DMV has cashed their check -- a sign that would all but guarantee the coveted golden sticker.

We’re “waiting on pins and needles, literally, waiting, and not knowing,” said Ashmore, who lives about 25 miles south of San Francisco.

“A progressive state like California should reward those of us who are doing something about global warming rather than discourage it,” Ashmore said, particularly in light of Friday’s United Nations report blaming humans for climate change.

Since the program began in August 2005, the number of hybrids in California has increased dramatically, from 34,861 at the end of 2004 to 91,665 in March 2006, the most recent figures available. The numbers include less fuel-efficient models that didn’t qualify for the carpool-sticker program.

Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View), who cosponsored a bill last year permitting the 10,000 additional stickers, said she would consider increasing the cap again.

“Eighty-five thousand hybrid stickers throughout California is not a lot,” Lieber said. There are 32.8 million vehicles registered in California. “Hybrids are better for air quality in California, and hybrid owners are going to be rewarded.”

Adam Mendelsohn, a spokesman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said another expansion in the program would require review. “The governor strongly supports programs that encourage use of alternative energy and reduction of the state’s dependence on fossil fuel,” he said.

A California Department of Transportation study published in June showed that about 4% of the state’s monitored carpool lanes became more congested from April 2005 to April 2006, including stretches on the San Bernardino and San Diego freeways. But because another 4% became less congested, the study concluded that there was “no clear indication” that carpool lanes were uniformly becoming congested after the stickers were introduced.

Still, some critics worry that allowing more hybrids in carpool lanes would clog them further, lessening the incentive for drivers to double up instead of going solo.

Stuart Cohen, executive director of the Oakland-based Transportation and Land Use Coalition, said high gas prices -- not unfettered use of carpool lanes -- were already a primary selling point for hybrids. “You don’t need an incentive on this,” he said.