Out of Control Policy Blog

Hybrids Congest VA Carpool Lanes

It's too bad that California -- which recently passed a law allowing single-occupant hybrid cars to use carpool lanes -- didn't have the benefit of learning from Virginia's experience:

    A surge in the number of hybrid vehicles has left carpool lanes nearly as congested as the regular lanes they are intended to relieve, a Virginia transportation task force said yesterday.

    A detailed study of carpool lanes on Interstate 95 found that the number of hybrids more than tripled between last spring and October. State transportation officials fear that the trend will continue as more hybrids enter the market and more commuters take advantage of an exemption allowing them to ride alone in such vehicles.

    The findings reflect the sentiments of carpool-lane users, who have inundated state officials with complaints about increased delays and congestion over the past six months. Many blame hybrids.

Back in April 2004 when the California bill was still being debated, Reason's Bob Poole predicted a similar outcome:

    Carpool lanes – formally called high occupancy vehicle, or HOV, lanes – were put in place to ease traffic congestion and to improve the efficiency of our freeways. So the first problem with allowing hybrids into HOV lanes is that these additional vehicles will soon use up the carpool lanes' capacity, making them nearly as congested as the regular lanes.

    Proponents, such as Jeff Morales, former director of Caltrans, try to reassure us by noting that over the next 15 years, hybrids will make up, at most, 2% of the vehicle fleet.

    But 2% of the 29 million vehicles already on our roads would be 580,000 vehicles. If even half of those hybrids tried to use the HOV lanes at rush hour, the lanes would be swamped. It is predicted by the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission that by 2010, seven of the region's 18 HOV corridors will be at capacity, and by 2025 nearly all of them will be congested.

And anecdotal evidence shows that Californians are already flocking to hybrids hoping to take advantage of the pending carpool lane perk:

    Many hybrid dealers now routinely mention the possibility of driving in carpool lanes as part of their sales pitch to customers, and some customers also call on their own to inquire about the new law.

    "It's probably increased hybrid sales by an additional 10%," Norris said. "The carpool lane is a huge advantage."

    Hybrid car ownership has been skyrocketing across the state.

Well, it may be too late for California (though the feds still haven't signed off), but Virginia's experience should provide a cautionary tale for other states considering similar perks for hybrid drivers.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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