- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2000

LOS ANGELES Imagine cruising along alone in the car-pool lane of your local interstate, driving right past the usual traffic jam, passing state highway patrolmen stuck in heavy traffic and not getting a $280 ticket for it.

This will soon be reality in California, but only for drivers in zero-emission cars powered by electricity or natural gas or some hybrid combination.

Starting this summer, a new state law will allow solitary drivers in non-polluting alternative-fuel cars and light trucks to use the car-pool lanes. It's a new use for the world's largest network of high-occupancy vehicle lanes, which are now used only to about one-eighth of capacity. State officials see the extra freeway space as a way to induce motorists to buy "green" cars.

The idea of rewarding buyers of clean cars came from Republican state legislators, some of whom have long seen the car-pool lanes as a waste that slows traffic in other lanes.

And what a reward it will be. A 23-mile rush-hour commute from suburban Pomona to downtown Los Angeles on Interstate 10, the San Bernardino Freeway, now takes single drivers an average of 48 minutes, according to the California Department of Transportation. Use of high-occupancy lanes that run nearly that full distance generally cuts the time almost in half.

The benefits are even greater on Interstate 405, the constantly clogged San Diego Freeway that sports fast-moving HOV lanes through most of Los Angeles and Orange counties, while the rest of the roadway usually resembles a vast parking lot between 7 and 10 a.m. and again between 3:30 and 7 p.m.

"I think it will be great to get a little perk like that," said Bernard Kirkman, who travels daily from Huntington Beach in Orange County to an aerospace engineering job in El Segundo, just south of the Los Angeles International Airport. "I bought a General Motors EV1 for the fun of it last year, and now I'm going to get to use the diamond lane."

The EV1 is one of five non-polluting electric cars now for sale in California, where many public garages feature special parking spaces where they can be recharged. By the 2003 model year, several more battery-powered models will be offered, along with some natural gas and natural gas/ electric hybrids.

That's because 10 percent of all new-car fleets offered for sale in California must be zero-emission vehicles by that year under rules adopted in 1994 by the state's Air Resources Board. That is America's strongest clean-car mandate and opening the car-pool lanes to them is also the strongest buying incentive offered anywhere.

Like the EV1, most new models are expected to cost more than $20,000. Some will be gasoline/ electric hybrids, able to switch back and forth between power sources. Anything using any gasoline will not be eligible for special treatment in carpool lanes.

Sales of the EV1, the first electric car to reach the market, have been slow so far, with fewer than 800 sold in a two-year period, largely due to price, according to market research surveys.

"The reason to give special access to alternative vehicles is you want to have some social benefit for people who are making some sacrifice," said Robert Bienenfeld, manager of alternative-fuel vehicle sales and marketing for American Honda, headquartered in suburban Torrance.

Adds Republican state Assemblyman Tom McClintock, long a critic of HOV lanes, "The more we can open the underused diamond lanes, the better. But this is a stunning admission that the car-pool lane is not promoting car-pooling to any major degree, so they must find new justifications for this enormous loss of highway capacity."

Not many cars will be able to use the new privilege right away. "We expect less than 10,000 of these vehicles in the next year, so there will not be a huge overload on the car-pool lanes," said Jerry Martin, spokesman for the Air Resources Board.

But there may be confusion at first among police officers, some of whom may not immediately recognize all zero-emission cars and pull drivers over.

Meanwhile, those driving electric cars are chomping at the bit. "This car's a rocket," said actor Ed Begley Jr., long a fan of electric cars and one of the first EV1 buyers. "Unless you've got a souped-up Lamborghini, this car will blow right by you.

"I love the idea of using the diamond lanes. And I like the idea of opening them up to other people using EVs. When you have a huge problem with air quality, you need to do everything you can to get people to help solve it."

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