The hybrid-huggers vs. Big Auto

A growing generation of eco-conscious drivers may have to battle the auto lobby for the carpool lane.

By Page Rockwell
Published March 11, 2005 6:35PM (EST)

Some promising news for hybrid car owners nationwide: The $284 billion federal highway spending bill that the House passed Thursday includes a waiver allowing California hybrid drivers to use the state's carpool lanes even when they're not carrying passengers.

Automakers like Honda and Toyota have already been promoting automatic eligibility for the carpool lane as one of the benefits of their advanced-technology vehicles. And hybrid-hugging California -- which led the country in Prius sales in 2004 (it also led in gas-guzzling SUV sales) -- passed legislation last year welcoming cars whose gas mileage is better than 45 miles per gallon into its high-occupancy vehicle lanes. But because the state's highways are built and maintained with federal dollars, reports the Sacramento Bee, California's law is a no-go until the federal government issues a waiver giving the state permission to alter its carpool policy.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are facing the wrath of auto giants like Ford and Lexus, which manufacture hybrid SUVs that don't quite make the 45 m.p.g. cutoff. Perhaps responding to this pressure, U.S. Reps. Darrel Issa, R-Calif., and Brad Sherman, D-Calif., have introduced their own carpool legislation, which would open HOV lanes to less fuel-efficient hybrids. Counting all hybrids as carpoolers could clog the already crowded lanes, and might remove the incentive to buy truly fuel-efficient smaller cars. Not surprisingly, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has indicated preference for the Issa-Sherman bill, saying in a statement that carpool lanes should be open to "a range of advanced technology vehicles" and that "the government should not be picking winners and losers."

There are no winners or losers yet -- the highway spending bill could stall in the Senate, and the Bush administration has warned that the president won't sign the bill into law if the cost goes over $284 billion. (Squabbles over funding amounts killed a similar bill last year.) Sen. Dianne Feinstein has said she'll push to preserve the California waiver when the bill goes to the Senate next week. But if the highway spending bill or its waiver run into trouble there, the more permissive Issa-Sherman bill is idling in the wings. Senators, start your engines.

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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