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Hybrids stay in HOV lanes

They never listen to me.

Virginia legislators and the governor have once again extended the provision that allows hybrid vehicles, even with solo drivers, to use the carpool lanes in Northern Virginia. It is now set to expire July 1, 2011. (They'll extend it again next year.)

This supposedly temporary measure dates back to the days when governments wanted to encourage the purchase of hybrid vehicles. If people bought the more efficient cars, they could get a faster trip to and from work by using the HOV lanes.

But the need for an incentive to buy hybrids disappeared long ago, along with low gas prices. The pollution coming from three hybrids with solo drivers in the HOV-3 lanes of I-95 can top that of one SUV carrying three people. Plus, the unrestricted use of hybrids contributes to congestion in the HOV lanes and decreases the incentive to carpool.

Del. Thomas A. "Tag" Greason (R-Loudoun) sponsored the one-year extension approved by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).

The rules
Hybrid vehicles with the required clean-fuel license plates can continue to use the I-95/395, I-66 and Dulles Toll Road HOV through June 30, 2011.

Only hybrids with clean-fuel plates issued before July 1, 2006, can use the I-95/395 HOV lanes during rush hours. All hybrids with clean-fuel plates can use all other HOV lanes in Virginia during HOV hours, including I-66 and the Dulles Toll Road.

For a hybrid to use Virginia's HOV lanes during rush hours, the vehicle must have a clean special-fuel plate issued by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Not all hybrids qualify for clean-fuel plates. Check the DMV Web site for an updated list of eligible hybrids.

By Robert Thomson  |  March 18, 2010; 11:28 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting , Transportation Politics  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, HOV  
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Next: New I-66 lanes opening


This is disheartening news for carpoolers attempting to drive on I-66, which is a virtual parking lot at the Dulles Access Road merger. Because of the additional traffic that the VA legislature has added to the road, I my gas mileage from my small cars (a Focus and Volvo S-40) has dropped by 10 percent. To add insult to injury, we use less fuel per passenger than a hybrid, especially the SUV- and large sedan types. This is a case of local politicians buying support from wealthy Northern Virgnians. Ironically, the traffic on I-66, combined with Beltway construction, is forcing me to drive on the surface streets - Colombia Pike, again using more fuel, etc.

Posted by: GRILLADES | March 18, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

When the HOT lanes go into affect I sure hope they end this exemption.

Posted by: buffysummers | March 18, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Dr. Gridlock, for being a voice of reason in this ridiculous sanctioning of hybrid behaviour. If they really cared about people using less gas, they would increase the user fee (aka gas tax) to help fund the actual cost of use of our infrastructure. But they would rather us wallow in misery and pass off additional debt to our kids.

Posted by: ssolomo | March 18, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

They need to remove the clause, "Only hybrids with clean-fuel plates issued before July 1, 2006, can use the I-95/395 HOV lanes during rush hours." since they never enforce it.

Posted by: grshpr | March 18, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

To ssolomo: Increasing a gas tax isn't going to move jobs closer to our homes. Do you think people are joy riding in the morning during rush hour?

I take advantage of the Hybrid HOV allowance, but I also carpool and only am solo on days when someone needs to stay late or calls out sick.

I have to agree that it is insane that the SUV Hybrids can use the lanes. The time for incentives has passed us by. If they moved to something like, all cars that get over 30mpg can use HOV and regulate that by a high mileage plate, that would make more sense to me.

Posted by: netsurf12 | March 18, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

On the bright side, maybe some additional Prii will suffer from "unintended acceleration" and actually belong in the left lane for a change! ;)

Thanks, Toyota!

Posted by: nocando | March 18, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Yay! Great common sense from Virginia. Just look at all the pollution coming from non-hybrid cars. More incentives are needed for purchasing clean emission, high gas mileage hybrids, like lower prices on the upcoming HOT lanes. The I-395 HOV lanes would be empty without those hybrids.

Posted by: AdventurerVA | March 18, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for letting us know the extent of your influence.

I guess we should start expecting Metro to go down to 4 car trains.

Posted by: corrections | March 18, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Gridlock, your post prompts me to ask something I've wondered about for a while: Do hybrids with the special plates get an exemption in the HOV-2 right lanes on US-1 (Patrick and Henry Streets) and Washington Street through Old Town? I've never seen those lanes mentioned in any of the discussions of this issue and I've always wondered about it, as I've seen hybrid drivers assuming the exemption does apply on those roads. (If I had a hybrid I'd probably make the same assumption, but I don't have one.) I have definitely seen the police running HOV enforcement on northbound US-1 through there in the mornings, but I don't recall whether I ever saw a hybrid in the HOV-2 lane when the cops were out there.

Posted by: 1995hoo | March 18, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

Incidentally, as I re-read Dr. Gridlock's post, I find myself wondering something else: Normally when you dispose of a car in Virginia (sell, trade in, write off after it's totaled in a crash, etc.), you can transfer your plates to a new car if you buy one while the plates are still valid. Is that true for the clean-fuel plates on hybrids? That is, suppose someone has an original Honda Insight purchased 10 years ago. It's a two-seater and the person now wants to buy the current-generation Insight because he needs a four-seater (maybe he had kids). Can he transfer the CF plates to the new car in the normal manner, assuming the new car is otherwise eligible for CF plates? If so, that seems to be a bit of a loophole in terms of the intent of the "plates issued before 7-1-06" rule, though it would seem to comply with the letter of the law.

(Before anyone asks, no, I don't know anyone in that position; it's solely a hypothetical question that occurred to me after I posted the other comment.)

Posted by: 1995hoo | March 18, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse

I'm sorry, but hybrids are NOT the reason the HOV lanes are congested. On any given day of the week, there are a ton of HOV violators (driving solo / not in a hybrid). Look at the difference when the Virginia State Troopers enforce the HOV restrictions. Whenever the VA troopers are parked at the entrance to the HOV lanes and handing out tickets to the violators, the traffic in the HOV lanes is a breeze and I FLY through to work. My carpool partner and I find good sport in counting the number of HOV violators we see on I-66 inside the beltway, and it far outnumbers the hybrids.

Posted by: blunoz | March 19, 2010 9:23 AM | Report abuse

"My carpool partner and I find good sport in counting the number of HOV violators we see on I-66 inside the beltway, and it far outnumbers the hybrids."

Don't forget that people coming from Dulles Airport on airport business are allowed to use I-66 regardless of the number of people in the car. When I worked downtown, if I had an evening flight out of Dulles I always made sure to go out there during HOV hours so that I could take advantage of the I-66 exemption and beat the traffic. Inevitably some self-righteous prick would give me the finger at some point under the assumption I was there illegally when in fact I was in the right.

No doubt most of the single-occupant vehicles you see are indeed violators, though. I'm just noting that it's not valid to assume they all are. The "Dulles exemption" was a condition the feds insisted upon when that road was built.

Posted by: 1995hoo | March 19, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

@1995hoo - You're absolutely right. People with airport business ARE allowed to use the I-66. I don't give anyone the bird or any other rude gestures driving solo on I-66 because I know they COULD have legitimate reason for being there. However, my carpool partnet and I still enjoy counting because the number of people driving solo on I-66 far exceeds the number of cars driving on the airport access road.

I still believe that the congestion on I-66 is due to HOV violators, not due to hybrids AND not due to legitimate airport traffic. The biggest evidence of this is the level of congestion on days when the VA troopers are enforcing the HOV restrictions. On any day the VA troopers are there, the traffic flows smoothly and quickly and there are no congestion problems (even with the hybrids and legitimate airport traffic).

Posted by: blunoz | March 19, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

They never listen to "me"? Exactly who do you think you are? You're certainly not a guy who has considered all the arguments.

The gas saved by each individual hybrid is not much. But imagine if everyone drove one. Imagine if so many people wanted them, the car companies put more money into improving them.

Alas, there are what economists call "externalities." People have to pay more for hybrids (about $5,000 more back in 2006, when Virginia stopped allowing new hybrids to qualify). And, until lots more people buy them, the car companies can't reduce the cost of producing them and have no incentive to spend money to improve them.

How do you get lots of people to buy something that's expensive but for the good of everyone? That's what governments are for. That's what fiscal policy should be about. Give buyers willing to shoulder an externality a temporary incentive. Good job, Virginia!

How long should the incentive last? Well, amortize $5,000 (minus the savings in gas, about $250 per year, since this reduces the externality) over some approapriate time. Five years sounds about right to me.

Please examine all the arguments before you make pronouncements. And please don't assume someone should listen to you just because you write a newspaper column.

Posted by: Economist3 | March 19, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

Looked at the dmv list for the first time today. I had my suspicions, but the Lexus GS450H? RX450H? Highlander?? Don't get me wrong, these are great alternatives to there full gas kin, but they still only average 25mpg (same as my 01 BMW)!! The only environmental benefit to these monster hybrids is the SULEV rating these cars have. Yet cars that emit even less emissions (PZEV rated cars, such as VW Jettas/GTIs, and Subaru Legacys) are stuck in traffic. If the concern here is "green" cars, how about first educating the public about the what's and why's of green with real-world data, and not just flashy hybrid monikers?

Posted by: swu88 | March 19, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

swu88, how do the hybrid vehicles cited in your post compare to the non-hybrid versions of the same? Maybe that's part of the thinking. (I don't know for certain as I'm not involved in the certification process.)

Posted by: 1995hoo | March 19, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

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