- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 23, 2003

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — Marque Ledoux bought his environmentally friendly Toyota Prius for one reason: Virginia law allows him to travel in the state’s high-occupancy vehicle lanes without carrying extra passengers.

It’s a privilege extended to owners of hybrids, or clean-fuel vehicles.

But a recommendation from a state task force — and an opinion from the Federal Highway Administration — may be slamming the brakes on Mr. Ledoux’s morning commute to the District.

A state task force created in May to crack down on HOV-lane violators issued a long list of recommendations last week to improve the flow of traffic in HOV lanes, and one would end the exemption for hybrids.

The state created the exemption for hybrids in the mid-1990s to encourage sales of the fuel-efficient cars and to promote use of the HOV lanes, which were underused, said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic who is a member of the task force.

“This may be an incentive that’s worked too well,” said Mr. Anderson, who said the HOV lanes are growing too crowded. “You know, it comes down to we’re running out of space in the HOV lanes, and we want to keep the HOV lanes moving. If the HOV lanes become clogged, they’re no better than the other lanes, and we lose the incentive for carpooling.”

The proposed change would hit hard commuters who bought hybrid cars in recent years largely because the state guaranteed HOV access.

“I’d be a little reluctant to tell them, ‘Hey, I’m sorry. We told you you could use the HOV lanes and in reliance on that you went and bought a car, and now you can’t use them,’” House Speaker Bill Howell, Stafford Republican, told the Free Lance-Star newspaper of Fredericksburg.

The General Assembly has to renew that guarantee every few years, and lawmakers this year extended it to July 1, 2006. The HOV task force recommends that they merely let that law expire at that time.

The Federal Highway Administration, which has jurisdiction over the HOV lanes, could nullify that state law before then if it feels that it violates federal rules.

Roberto Fonseca-Martinez, the Virginia division administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, wrote in an April 9 letter to the state that under federal law, cars classified as “inherently low-emission vehicles” can use the HOV lanes without the required number of occupants.

But hybrid vehicles run on a combination of gas and electricity and therefore don’t qualify for unbridled HOV access, Mr. Fonseca-Martinez wrote.

“If current federal law remains unchanged, we anticipate writing a letter indicating that Virginia state law and policies are counter to federal law, and request that Virginia discontinue its current practice of allowing clean-fuel vehicles, especially hybrid vehicles, to use HOV lanes,” he wrote to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Congress is considering legislation that would allow states to grant HOV access to hybrids.

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