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Hybrids Could Lose HOV Perk Early

Va. Offers Options Aimed at Restricting Usage of I-95/395 Lanes

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2005; Page B01

Virginia transportation officials said yesterday that hybrid vehicles have become so prevalent in the Interstate 95/395 carpool lanes that their use may be curbed earlier than promised.

In a letter responding to concerns from federal highway officials about increased congestion in the corridor, Virginia officials said that hybrid sales continue to surge and that several options exist to cut down on their use in the high-occupancy-vehicle lanes.

In Springfield, drivers look for "slugs" with similar destinations so they can qualify for high-occupancy-vehicle lanes. (Leslie E. Kossoff -- AP)

Carpool Lanes

Maryland and Virginia have set aside lanes for use by high-occupancy vehicles.

• Why: The lanes encourage commuters to share rides. HOV lanes tend to be less congested than the regular highway lanes, so carpoolers theoretically can get where they're going faster.

• Where: Northern Virginia's HOV lanes are on Interstates 66, 95 and 395 and the Dulles Toll Road. Maryland has HOV lanes on I-270 and Route 50.

• Use: Most of the HOV lanes are designated HOV-2, meaning carpoolers must have at least one other person in the vehicle. The I-95/395 lanes are HOV-3.

• Exceptions: Both states allow motorcycles. To encourage use of cleaner, more fuel-efficient vehicles, Virginia allows hybrid cars, even with solo motorists.

• Fines: Maryland has a basic fine of $50 and one point on a driver's record. Virginia's fines range from $50 for a first offense to $1,000 for a fourth offense within three years of the second offense. Starting with the third offense within five years of a first, drivers are assessed three demerits.

• Complaints: Drivers in both states complain about the number of motorists who ignore the rules. Many Virginia drivers also say hybrid vehicles have become too numerous and should now be barred.

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Those included ending the exemption for hybrids before its scheduled expiration July 1, 2006, requiring them to carry at least one passenger, restricting their use to certain times or capping their use at its current level.

Transportation officials say the hybrids are a major reason the once free-flowing lanes now regularly clog with traffic. The lanes are key to the region's transportation system, because they allow timely bus service and provide an incentive for commuters to give up their cars.

Because the Virginia General Assembly has ended its annual session, changes to the rule would have to be made by federal officials, who have authority over hybrid use. The Virginia exemption for hybrids counters federal law, but federal officials have allowed it to continue while that law is reconsidered. However, they wrote in December that they were "very concerned" that hybrids were overwhelming the I-95/395 HOV lanes.

"I think we need to arrive at a solution, at a plan of action, before July 1, 2006," said Virginia's transportation commissioner, Philip A. Shucet. "I think it most likely will include doing something with hybrids."

Federal officials declined to comment on the letter.

"We're focused on helping drivers get to where they need to go safely and on time, and HOV lanes are an effective tool to keep traffic moving," Brian Keeter, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, said in a statement. "We're working with Virginia to ensure it has the flexibility to allow hybrid vehicles on HOV lanes provided they remain free of serious traffic congestion problems."

The hybrid exemption has caused considerable debate among Virginia's transportation officials, lawmakers and motorists.

The state approved the exemption in 2000 to encourage purchase of the environmentally friendly cars that use a combination of gas and electric power. The rule still draws strong support from many lawmakers and commuters. Bills to end the exemption for hybrids in HOV lanes failed during the recent assembly session, and some lawmakers have said they would like to extend it beyond next year. Supporters also say that cheaters are a far greater problem than hybrids.

Opponents fret that the number of hybrids will continue surging and end the time-savings incentive of the HOV lanes.

In a recent Washington Post poll, 56 percent of Northern Virginians said single-person hybrid vehicles should be allowed to use carpool lanes, and 43 percent said they should not. Across the region, 53 percent said they should be allowed and 45 percent said they should not.

To measure attitudes toward commuting, The Post interviewed 1,003 randomly selected adults in the Washington area Jan. 27 to 31.

"They need to lift this exemption immediately, not in 2006," said Ron Silverstein, who blamed hybrids for slowing his daily commute from Prince William County to the District. "If the state of Virginia is breaking the law by doing this, why doesn't the federal government step in to enforce the law?"

Since October, hybrid sales have surged 44 percent, and the number of vehicles has grown from 4,800 to 6,900, state officials said.

"The incentive clearly is working," said Marc Copeland, senior policy analyst at the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. "People are taking advantage of it because they are able to drive in the HOV lanes as a single occupant."

The letter to federal highway officials paints a grim picture of the future of the I-95/395 HOV lanes. Officials said use of the lanes grew from 5,855 vehicles to 7,680 -- a 31 percent increase -- between fall 2002 and fall 2004, according to traffic volume recorded at the Occoquan River.

Many of those are cheaters. Virginia officials estimate that 22 percent of the 35,250 people who used the I-95/395 HOV lanes on a typical morning in 2004 were violators. Officials said hybrid use was as high as 17 percent.

Aside from cutting down on hybrids, Virginia officials also proposed possible changes to the hours that the lanes are in use. Officials said they plan to evaluate whether to change the start of HOV hours from 6 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. and move their end time from 6 p.m. to 6:30 or 7 p.m. Any time changes would have to be approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

Officials also said they are considering ways to make spot improvements such as ramp restrictions to cut down on backups at interchanges. They also are considering allowing buses and trucks to use the shoulder between Edsall and Glebe roads, where a steep hill regularly causes slowdowns.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company