- - Wednesday, June 29, 2011

LOS ANGELES — For six years, California gave owners of hybrid cars the keys to the fast lane: permission to drive alone among carpoolers.

Now hybrids are about to lose the special privilege that was intended as a reward for saving gas and protecting the environment. The vehicles are no longer novel, their key-shaped yellow decals faded from the sun, and transportation officials want to make way for a new generation of even cleaner cars.

Starting Friday, 85,000 hybrid owners have to get back in line with the gas guzzlers, the truckers and everyone else or face steep fines.

“They can join the rest of us in traffic and suffer,” said Elijah Brumfield, of Torrance, who drives a Ford Expedition SUV.

State officials say the time has come to end the hugely popular incentive program introduced in August 2005 because they’ve met their goal of getting drivers to switch to low-emission hybrids, which run on both electricity and gasoline.

For some Southern California road warriors, using the HOV lane can cut their commuting time in half, but it’s an advantage normally reserved for cars carrying at least two or three people. Hybrid drivers who relied on the perk dread the return to gridlock and stop-and-go traffic.

“I’m really not looking forward to it,” said Alan McAllister of Murrieta, who drives 55 miles each way to get to his teaching job at Fullerton College. “Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been noticing me going 55 mph in the carpool lane and other people virtually at a dead stop. I can’t believe I’m going to sit in that again.”

California had about 57,000 registered hybrid vehicles when it became the second state after Virginia to allow hybrids with no passengers into carpool lanes. Several other states, including Arizona, Colorado and New York, followed. Some places added other benefits such as free metered parking and tax credits.

Thousands of California motorists rushed to send in $8 applications for the decals. Within a year, the Department of Motor Vehicles had issued all available permits.

Only three hybrid models - Toyota’s Prius and Honda’s Civic and Insight - were eligible because they met the standard of at least 45 mpg. State law initially limited the number of qualified vehicles to 75,000 to prevent hybrids from clogging the lanes, but state officials later permitted another 10,000 cars.

Hybrid sales jumped, though they still only make up 425,000 of nearly 32 million registered vehicles in the state. But the privilege of cruising alone in the carpool lanes drew resentment from drivers who derided hybrid owners as elitist environmentalists and mocked their car of choice as the Toyota “Pious.”

“It’s a little unfair to see them muscle into the carpool lane while you’re stuck in traffic. The economy is so bad, not everyone can afford a Prius,” said Angelo Angara, who commutes in a 23-year-old Toyota Corolla.

State officials said hybrid owners knew the end was coming. The decals were set to expire late last year, but state lawmakers approved a six-month extension to ease the transition to the next generation of cleaner, plug-in hybrids.

A few states such as Utah have already stripped hybrids of their special access to carpool lanes. Hybrid drivers in Virginia will lose their privileges in June 2012. In Maryland, the practice ends in September 2013.