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    Posted: 11 Feb 2006 at 11:00am
Washington Post Editorial ANTI HYBRID!

Hydra-Headed Hybrids
Sunday, February 12, 2006; Page B06

IN NORTHERN VIRGINIA, the hybrid has become hydra-headed. As plenty of the region's commuters know, hybrid vehicles are the main culprit in the ever-worsening traffic in the region's carpool lanes. Thanks to a regulatory perk, hybrid drivers are allowed to use carpool lanes -- chiefly those on Interstate 95 -- without carrying a single passenger; that's a major reason Northern Virginia ranks just behind California as the nation's hottest market for hybrid sales.

Obviously, it defeats the purpose of carpool lanes to flood them with passengerless hybrids. Realizing that, officials have long planned to end the sweet deal for hybrids this summer. But, incredibly, Virginia lawmakers have voted to prolong it. This is a supremely bad idea.

There is no mystery about hybrids' impact on the carpool lanes, known as HOV, or high-occupancy-vehicle, lanes. Introduced only five years ago, hybrids now account for at least 22 percent of rush-hour traffic on I-95's HOV lanes. That's even more than the 15 percent believed to be cheaters -- those in conventional cars who use the HOV lanes despite carrying no passengers. With hybrid sales soaring, the problem is getting worse in a hurry. There are already more than 11,700 hybrids on Virginia's roads -- triple the number three years ago -- and the vast majority of them are in Northern Virginia. At current trends another 5,000 will be added to the region's roads this year.

State incentives to drive hybrids once made some sense. Powered by battery as well as gasoline, hybrids are somewhat cleaner and more

fuel-efficient than their exclusively gasoline-powered cousins. When the state granted HOV access to hybrids starting in 2000, the idea was to strike a blow for the environment and against profligate gas consumption.

But that deal has outlived its usefulness. Hybrids' environmental advantages have diminished as stricter federal rules have required gas-powered cars to have cleaner engines, starting with 2004 models. The region's air quality, though still in need of improvement, has made major gains for more than a decade. Whatever marginal environmental benefits are realized by encouraging hybrid sales on the promise of HOV access, at this point the policy may be doing more harm than good. By slowing carpoolers and long-haul bus trips at rush hour, hybrids may well push frustrated commuters back into their own cars, increasing net emissions. By slowing traffic, hybrids threaten to kill the HOV system.

The hybrid invasion of carpool lanes must end. If that doesn't happen on schedule this summer, it will only become more difficult to do as pressure builds from the growing numbers of hybrid owners and dealers. Nonetheless, both houses of the General Assembly have passed legislation that would extend the deal by a year, until July 2007. The sponsor of one of the bills, Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax), says it will maintain the status quo while Virginia and federal officials negotiate regulations governing how much HOV traffic is too much and how many passengerless hybrids are too many. But that is beside the point, which is that high-occupancy lanes are already being clogged by low-occupancy cars. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) should veto the legislation. It's time to restore some rationality to the roads.

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