California Mulls Unlimited HOV Lane Access For Plug-in Hybrids To 2019 And EVs To 2025

If all amendments to present law proposed by a governor’s budget trailer bill now making the rounds are adopted, California could remove the cap on plug-in hybrid green solo-access HOV stickers to 2019 and extend already unlimited white stickers for EVs into 2025.

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The HOV access perk adopted early this decade for qualified plug-in cars followed a precedent set by regular hybrids. It was begun with no cap limits for white EV stickers and just 40,000 plug-in hybrids could get green stickers until January 2015 but in 2013 the program was extended to Jan. 1, 2019 – or whichever came first for plug-in hybrids.

“Whichever came first” has come three times and been extended three times for green stickers maxed since December at 85,000 distributed, and stakeholders are considering a more thorough fix to meet California’s clean air goals this time.

As they contemplate issues before a June 15 budget deadline, if California actually permits unbridled HOV lane access for PHEVs through Jan. 1, 2019 and six-and-a-half extra years to Oct. 1, 2025 for EVs, this would mean many more plug-in cars than originally contemplated.

SEE ALSO: HOV Access Is Key For California Plug-in Car Purchases

Whether these new ceilings are adopted or – as some close to the issues have said is more likely – a deal is whittled down in committee between divided interests, remains to be seen. Behind the scenes, automakers including General Motors, BMW, Toyota, and Ford are pitching their positions alongside advocates, legislators and Governor Jerry Brown himself.

Under the governor's trailer bill, the 85,000 unit cap is stricken in favor of unlimited green stickers issued through Dec. 31, 2018.

The HOV-lane perk is recognized by California and automakers alike as a spur to sales. Under the governor’s trailer bill, the 85,000 unit cap is stricken in favor of unlimited green stickers issued through Jan. 1, 2019.

Coincidentally, the 85,000 green stickers issued thus far equals the 85,000 yellow HOV access stickers issued last decade into this for regular hybrids, observed John Swanton of the California Air Resource Boar (ARB).

White stickers, already unlimited, would carry forth to fall 2025 under the proposed trailer bill.

White stickers, already unlimited, would carry forth to fall 2025 under the proposed trailer bill.

What needs to happen first is one or more legislators must sponsor one or more bills. Governor Brown’s trailer bill sets the tone and legislation could mirror or amend the provisions for the HOV perk. A proposed house or senate bill then could be hashed out in committee, and before anything is made law, it must be approved by the state legislature and senate, then signed by the governor.

Since last decade lanes ostensibly reserved for multi-occupant vehicles have been permitted by California. "The Department of Transportation has reported that prior traffic counts indicate that low-emission and zero-emission vehicles contribute a very small percentage of the peak hour high-occupancy vehicle lane volume, under 5% of vehicles in the lanes," says the governor's trailer bill.

Since last decade lanes ostensibly reserved for multi-occupant vehicles have been permitted to green cars by California. “The Department of Transportation has reported that prior traffic counts indicate that low-emission and zero-emission vehicles contribute a very small percentage of the peak hour high-occupancy vehicle lane volume, under 5 percent of vehicles in the lanes,” says the governor’s trailer bill.

Under the present program, California’s ARB says the Department of Motor Vehicles is still taking applications for consumers hoping to see the cap raised.

If no new agreement is made, there is no other provision known for green stickers to be issued as they are at the statutory limit, and California would have to try again next year during next budget season.

This means that while California is building a queue of applicants waiting for an extension, they won’t be getting immediate gratification, or even delayed gratificaton if they’re feeling antsy already.

That said, the feeling among stakeholders is some sort of compromise will be arrived at, but it is too early to say what this might be.

Issues

The history of green stickers for plug-in hybrids has been an exercise in compromise and stop-gap measures since it began with a 40,000 cap, and under the original intent it should have long-since ended.

As things turned out, California legislators have managed to get an extension of 15,000 green stickers three separate times raising the maximum limit to 55,000, then 70,000, now 85,000.

While seen as a benefit by advocates, the law was considered less than ideal by advocates such as Chelsea Sexton, who warned of unintended consequences also and who would still like to see modifications for greater equitability if green stickers are to be continued.

SEE ALSO: California Green HOV Stickers For PHEVs Almost Maxed Out – Again

Several issues are in play for the HOV perk’s possible resuscitation as expressed in the course of our speaking to automakers, advocates, as well as ARB, but at this juncture people are asking to stay off the record as interests jockey and people look to what bill is proposed.

One oft-repeated concern has been the inclusion of the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, now-discontinued and awaiting potentially higher-range replacement. This 2012-2015 car gets up to 11 miles EPA-rated range and unlike former rules for regular hybrids granting HOV access contingent on a minimum mpg threshold, the present no-minimum e-range green sticker program includes this low-range car.

A second-generation Prius hybrid enjoys a privilege that has since been revoked.

A second-generation Prius hybrid enjoys a privilege that has since been revoked.

Ironically the yellow regular hybrid sticker policy once upon a time made over-45-mpg cars like the regular Prius a darling of the program, but Toyota’s plug-in version has been viewed by some as a relative laggard just squeaking by under the intent of the law.

As such, new legislation may address a limit in eVMT, or electric vehicle miles traveled, said one EV advocate. Another consideration, he said, is raising the minimum MPGe threshold for plug-in hybrids permitted green stickers.

SEE ALSO: California Hybrid Drivers Have Just Hours Left to Enjoy HOV Access Perk

A further possibility is a unit limit cap will be imposed on plug-in hybrids, and the wording of the governor’s trailer bill striking out the cap will be amended. The likelihood of this is very high, said the EV advocate.

As for opponents to the HOV perk, these included reportedly metropolitan transportation authorities which have raised concerns before. Just this week the Pasadena Star News reported ExpressLanes have been slowed by solo access drivers on parts of the 110 and 10 freeways. Speeds there have declined enough that federal highway funds could be withheld and authorities see raised tolls to discourage solo access as an insufficient remedy.

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Fuel cell vehicles like Toyota’s Miral are also eligible for white stickers.

On principle alone, the notion of letting plug-in car drivers go solo on “high occupancy vehicle” lanes – also called “carpool” lanes has irked some people.

Since the 1990s however, California – as have other states – has shown itself quite willing to bend the rules and the ends justify the means to get more green cars on its roads.

ARB promotes it in the interests of clean air, and while on another hand it forces automakers to build plug-in cars targeted to comply with its rules, the HOV perk otherwise suits automakers because it helps sell them.

But what will really happen? Maybe some concession to the now-stalled program. Maybe more than expected. Maybe not much. One advocate said there’s “not much support” coming from the governor’s office, “primarily due to crowding.”

Under the initial governor’s trailer bill, Caltrans would be required to perform a HOV traffic degradation status report by Dec. 1, 2017 to help determine what sticker programs can be maintained and at what level.

Clock Ticking

What is decided this year about continued solo HOV access in the country’s largest electrified car market will depend on behind-the-scenes maneuvering leading to public proposals.

The bill introduction deadline for the California Legislature is by Feb 19 and the budget must be signed by June 15.

Eyes will be on what bill or bills may be sponsored by legislators to extend a benefit seen by many as a win for carmakers, ARB, and buyers of the eligible plug-in cars.

With gas prices down and affecting sales, the original perceived need for the perk is still in place, and vested interests would like to keep the ball rolling.

We’ll have more when we learn more.