The days may be numbered for hybrid car owners who have enjoyed traveling solo in California's carpool lanes.
The stickers granting that privilege to 85,000 hybrid owners are set to expire Jan. 1, 2011. There are proposals in Sacramento to extend the deadline, but they would exclude most of the vehicles that originally qualified for the program, such as the Toyota Prius, the Honda Civic hybrid and the original Honda Insight.
"We're bummed," said Cathy Margolin, president of the 250-member Orange County Prius Club. "I drive from Newport Beach to Torrance to teach four times a week, and it saves me an hour every day on the 405."
For hybrid owners, losing their stickers would be more than an inconvenience. The carpool lane exemption added $1,000 to $2,000 to the value of a used hybrid. Some used-car dealers say they are already seeing that premium shrink as the deadline gets closer.
"We've definitely seen those Priuses and Civic hybrids move back toward normal pricing," said Carey Caldwell, a local purchasing manager for CarMax, which operates a national chain of used-car dealerships.
The goal of the 2004 law that created the sticker program was to encourage the purchase of advanced-technology vehicles that delivered better fuel economy and produced lower emissions.
Gasoline-electric hybrids with combined city-highway mileage of 45 miles per gallon or better were eligible for a yellow sticker. The number of yellow stickers was capped at 85,000, and the last one was given out in February 2007.
White stickers granting the same carpool-lane exemption were authorized for electric cars and vehicles powered by alternative fuels such as natural gas. There was no limit placed on these stickers, and so far about 9,500 have been given out.
All the stickers were originally set to expire in 2008, but the Legislature extended that deadline to 2011.
Now, lawmakers want to up the ante. A bill by Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) that the Assembly passed this year would extend the carpool lane exemption to 2016 but limit it to drivers of vehicles powered by electricity, natural gas or some other alternative fuel.
A competing Senate bill included hybrids but only those that achieve city-highway fuel economy of 65 mpg or better -- well beyond the official ratings of the current crop of hybrids.
"What we're saying is that the hybrid isn't good enough anymore," said Adam Keigwin, chief of staff for Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), sponsor of the Senate bill.
He said the Senate also wants to examine the whole issue of carpool lane exemptions before deciding to grant another reprieve to sticker holders.
Many of the state's carpool lanes have become so clogged that California risks losing federal highway funding. Forcing thousands of driver-only hybrids back into the regular freeway lanes is seen as one way to reduce the congestion.
Even some hybrid owners acknowledge that the original intent of the law has clearly been achieved.
"I live in Santa Monica and you can't swing a dead cat here without hitting a Prius, so the bill served its purpose," said Will Kepper, who has a sticker on his 2001 Prius.
The issue isn't likely to be settled until the Legislature reconvenes next year.
Makers of alternative-fuel vehicles fret that failing to extend the deadline for the white stickers could remove an important incentive for potential buyers.
Fleet operators are important customers for the natural-gas-powered Honda GX, and the carpool lane stickers are a big part of the appeal, said Todd Mittleman, a spokesman for the Japanese automaker.
"Our customers are finding them indispensable in Southern California traffic," he said.
Sharon Delugach of Los Angeles, a 2003 Prius owner and chief of staff for an L.A. school board member, knows the feeling.
"I had no idea they were going to expire," she said of her stickers. "I thought I was set for life."