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    Posted: 07 Jan 2005 at 3:02pm
Virginia mulls new challenges to hybrids in HOV lanes

The boom in hybrid cars is cutting into
the efficiency of the travel lanes, a task force reports.

Should hybrids stay in HOV? What do you think?

Hybrid-car drivers who enjoy special access to Virginia's High Occupancy Vehicle lanes are seeing that privilege challenged yet again.

A task force looking at how to improve traffic flow in the state's HOV lanes has recommended for the second time that lawmakers no longer give hybrid owners carte blanche to use the faster lanes. And federal officials are once again pressuring the state to reconsider the pro-hybrid policy.

Under a state law enacted in the mid-1990s, owners of so-called "clean special fuel" cars can use the HOV lanes without the required three occupants other cars must have. The law is scheduled to expire on July 1, 2006, though hybrid owners have pushed for its extension.

The legislation was designed to encourage sales of the fuel-efficient vehicles and promote use of what were then underutilized travel lanes.

It worked. As of October, 5,660 hybrid vehicles were registered in Virginia, 95 percent of them in the Fredericksburg area and Northern Virginia.

But in a report released late yesterday, the state task force said that hybrid car use--particularly in Northern Virginia--has increased so much that it's becoming "a major contributor to the eroding performance of the HOV lanes on I-95."

Hybrids like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, which run on a mix of gasoline and electricity, now account for up to 19 percent of the cars in the I-95 HOV lanes during the peak morning hours, the report states.

The HOV lanes were designed to carry no more than 1,800 cars per lane per hour, the report says. But they're carrying about 1,900 cars per lane per hour now.

The report offers a number of recommendations, including requiring hybrids to carry three occupants if their drivers want to use HOV lanes; tightening the standards used to define a "clean special fuel" vehicle; increasing the plate fees for those vehicles from $10 a year to $500 a year and using the extra money for HOV- lane maintenance and enforcement; and allowing the existing exemption for hybrid owners to expire on July 1, 2006.

The group made some of these same recommendations in 2003, not long after it was formed to crack down on HOV violators. Hybrid owners criticized the effort then, and likely will again.

The Federal Highway Administration has also weighed in on the issue. Federal law gives cars that don't use gasoline special access to HOV lanes.

But the agency sent the Virginia Department of Transportation a letter in April 2003 indicating the state may be violating federal law by giving those same privileges to hybrids, which use some gas.

At the time, Congress was considering legislation that would allow states to grant HOV access to hybrids. So the Federal Highway Administration agreed to delay action against Virginia until Congress finished its work.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed two measures giving states more power over that sort of thing, but the Senate still has not, said Chris Connelly, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-1st District.

The Federal Highway Administration sent a second letter to VDOT on Dec. 8, 2004, warning Virginia that it shouldn't allow hybrid cars to cause congestion in the HOV lanes.

Division Administrator Roberto Fonseca-Martinez asked VDOT to analyze the impact of hybrids on the HOV lanes and to consider eliminating the special privileges for hybrid drivers. He asked that VDOT send him a report on its progress by Feb. 28.

"It has recently come to our attention that the number of hybrid vehicles using the Northern Virginia HOV lanes along Interstates 395/95 has greatly increased over the last 8 months. Also we have learned that the operation of the HOV lanes is beginning to degrade, which could directly affect the original intent of providing a travel incentive for transit, vanpools and carpools," he wrote. "We are very concerned."

For a link to the entire HOV task force report, visit fredericksburg .com.

To reach EDIE GROSS: 540/374-5428
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