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Hybrids stay in Virginia HOV lanes

By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 6:55 PM

Most of the travelers who write to me don't expect local or federal governments to come up with big solutions to our transportation troubles. They are wise to have low expectations. Instead, these commuters look for small advantages wherever they can find them.

The Virginia General Assembly, which ended its 2011 session last week, is my Exhibit A. The legislature made a big decision by approving the proposal by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) to borrow about $3 billion and to create a Transportation Infrastructure Bank.The steps could help finance as many as 900 transportation projects statewide. It doesn't mean that travelers can look forward to 900 transportation improvements in the next few years. Some of the projects on the list are well underway; others would get enough money to sustain studies. Some, like the widening of Interstate 66 out to Haymarket, are so big they will take many years to complete.

But it's a big deal nonetheless in a state that doesn't often do big deals in transportation.

I didn't get any letters about the legislation. Nothing for or against the borrowing, nothing asking what's ahead after this infusion of money. But I got many questions from Virginians about a legislative topic that pops up at this time each year.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

We are trying to sort out all of our commuting options. I know that high efficiency vehicles such as the Toyota Prius can use the I-66 HOV lanes with one driver, but I have read that that exemption expires June 30 of this year. Who sets the exemption and is there any reasonable possibility that the exemption will be extended?

Frank Allen Philpot, Centreville

The answer to that very practical question is that the General Assembly passed House Bill 1432, extending the hybrid exemption for one year and sent it to the governor. The bill passed with strong support in both the House and Senate. McDonnell has till the end of March to act on it, but he did sign a bill with the same purpose last year.

The legislation, intended to encourage the purchase of hybrids back when there weren't many of them, was scheduled to expire in 2006. Each year, the legislature has made a change in the text: After "July 1," it strikes out the current year and substitutes the following year; so "2011" became "2012." Simple as that.

And each year, I write that it's a bad idea, even though many of my readers are grateful to have the extension. Because so many commuters feel this way, an e-mail from Melinda Kitchell Malico of Annandale got my attention. She said she has commuted to the District for many years via Metrobus, Metrorail, carpool and Virginia Railway Express, and she shared a letter to the governor's office in which she urged a halt to the extensions. Here's part of what she wrote:

"The original law was designed to stimulate sales of fuel-efficient hybrids. It did that. But no one ever promised these early hybrid purchasers the lifelong privilege of skirting the law forever! In fact, when they purchased the cars, they knew it was temporary. Now they are given the right to transfer those plates to new hybrids - even SUVs that get very poor highway gas mileage!

"The incentive to carpool to D.C. to save fuel and prevent pollution is pretty much gone, because the traffic on the express lanes is frequently worse than the traffic on the regular lanes. The HOV lanes are full of hybrids. . . . One by one, carpools are going to give up and start driving as single drivers since there is practically no advantage to carpooling now."

Drivers who don't agree with Malico and me should keep something in mind this year: If you don't have a hybrid with the proper clean-fuel tags issued by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, you need to get them by June 30 to qualify for the hybrid exemption on the I-66 HOV lanes.

Only hybrids with clean-fuel plates issued before July 1, 2011, will be allowed to use the I-66 HOV lanes during HOV hours. A similar cutoff faced hybrid drivers on I-95/395 on July 1, 2006. That was a concession to the concerns of carpoolers and the Virginia Department of Transportation that hybrids with solo drivers were on their way to clogging the HOV lanes, diminishing the incentive to carpool for a faster trip.

Also, note that police patrols look for the proper clean-fuel license plates rather than for the make, model and year of the vehicle. Not all hybrids qualify for the clean-fuel tags. Be sure to check the list of qualifying hybrids available on the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles Web site.

The state's annual fee for clean-fuel plates is $25, and $15 goes to the Virginia State Police HOV enforcement fund.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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