A Move to Unclog the Carpool Lanes

Drivers who buy hybrids are no longer exempt from rules governing HOV lanes on Interstates 95 and 395. Ten thousand hybrids are registered in Virginia.
Drivers who buy hybrids are no longer exempt from rules governing HOV lanes on Interstates 95 and 395. Ten thousand hybrids are registered in Virginia. (By Leslie E. Kossoff -- Associated Press)

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By Ashton Williams
Associated Press
Thursday, July 20, 2006

Virginia was looking for a hook more than a decade ago that would persuade motorists to buy low-polluting vehicles. The solution: Allow drivers of the cars to travel in carpool lanes without passengers.

Initially, few drivers took advantage of the perk. Then, in 2000, hybrid cars were included. The number of hybrids in carpool lanes has soared. So, too, has resentment from other drivers, who complain that their commute is becoming increasingly congested.

Transportation officials and lawmakers hope a law that took effect July 1 solves the problem. Hybrids purchased after June 30 will not be exempt from carpool rules governing Interstates 95 and 395. New hybrid drivers traveling alone on other highways will still be allowed in the lanes until July 1, 2007.

Hybrids are "contributing to the eroding performance on I-95 and I-395," Deputy Secretary of Transportation Ralph Davis said.

The deadline had drivers scrambling to purchase hybrids. Now, some dealers are concerned that sales will drop off.

Kam Qureshi, sales manager at Hendrick Honda in Woodbridge, said motorists had been willing to pay $2,500 or more over the manufacturer's suggested retail price for the privileges that come with driving a hybrid.

"For every 50 people who bought [a hybrid], maybe one bought it for the reason Honda actually built it," Qureshi said. "In the next month, we'll see who the real environmentalists are."

In April 2003, about 2,500 drivers had registered hybrids in Virginia. Today the total is about 10,000, Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Joan Morris said.

A survey by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments said Prince William County led all Washington area counties with nearly 15 hybrids per 1,000 households, well above the national average of 3.3.

The urgency to get a hybrid before the end of June was no surprise to some officials.

"I know this is a sensitive matter," said Dennis Morrison, Northern Virginia administrator for VDOT. "The commute in Northern Virginia is so tough that any leg up you get, you don't want to lose it."

To help authorities know which cars are exempt, drivers buying hybrids are being given different license plates. The new plates are blue and have the "clean special fuel" logo on the opposite side from the older plates, which are white.


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