Hybrid Perks May Become Problems

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The purchase of a hybrid car is more and more likely to put its driver into a privileged class of motorist with access to carpool lanes, special parking spots and other perks -- the kinds of things most drivers can only dream about when they're stuck in traffic or circling a block.

But many commuters and some transportation experts say the generous incentives intended to reduce oil consumption and help clean the air are working too well and are in danger of becoming unfair, unnecessary and, ultimately, counterproductive.

Hybrids are helping clog carpool lanes in Virginia, the first state to let solo motorists in the combination gas-electric cars use them. Last year, the state's Department of Transportation was worried enough about the impact of hybrids on traffic flow to call for an early end to the perk, scheduled to expire in July. Instead, Virginia is in the process of extending it.

The House of Delegates gave preliminary approval yesterday to a bill allowing hybrids to continue using carpool lanes under certain conditions. The state Senate already approved an extension, and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) supports it, despite the qualms of his transportation officials.

An incentive -- whether it's access to a carpool lane or cut-rate financing -- still aims to put another car on the road, and that undermines efforts to encourage carpooling.

Hybrids accounted for nearly 25 percent of cars in the high-occupancy vehicle lanes on Interstate 95 in Virginia, according to a state study conducted last fall. That was up from 4 percent two years ago.

The Transportation Department is alarmed by the rapid increase. The additional drivers could slow traffic in the HOV lanes to the point where carpoolers decide they might as well go back to driving their own vehicles in the regular lanes.

"We're concerned about the unrestricted growth of hybrids because if HOV stops working for one class of vehicles, it stops working for all classes, including buses and carpoolers," Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said.

Many commuters recognize the dilemma.

"The whole point of HOV is to get fewer cars on the road," said Bill Faith, an Annandale resident and sometime carpooler. "To allow them to come in as single cars doesn't make any sense. Don't let them clog up roads and have more traffic. It's just silly."

But more are probably on the way as automakers rush to bring out new hybrids and drivers buy them nearly as quickly as they come off assembly lines. More than 200,000 hybrids were sold last year, compared with 83,000 the year before, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association.

"I think this country has gone crazy with incentives for hybrids at a time when they're selling like hot cakes," said Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank in Los Angeles.

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