A bill from Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) would extend a state law that allows hybrid and electric cars to use the carpool lane. The new program would allow drivers of low and zero emission vehicles access to the lanes through Sept. 30, 2025. If AB544 does not pass the Senate, the program expires in 2019.
Under the current program, drivers of energy efficient cars can apply for and purchase Clean Air Decals for $22 to use the lanes. Under the extended program, the green and white decals would be valid for three years, according to Bloom. The cost of the decal would offset the ongoing program cost of about $1.2 million.
“Zero emission vehicles are very popular with Santa Monicans and the sticker program enhances their popularity,” Bloom told the Daily Press. “Santa Monica has been a leader on environmental issues for decades and is now working on developing a plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Over half of the city’s emissions come from transportation, so zero emission vehicles will undoubtedly be part of reaching that goal.”
Right now about 260,559 cars across the state have the decals, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. That’s only a fraction of the nearly 1.2 million hybrid and electric cars registered in California. About 32,158 cars in Los Angeles County applied for the stickers in 2016.
Governor Jerry Brown has set a goal of 1.5 million zero or near-zero emission cars on the road by 2025. A 2014 survey from the California Center for Sustainable Energy found nearly 60 percent of respondents said access to HOV lanes was an important motivation for purchasing a clean air vehicle. The bill would not allow drivers who applied for a Clean Vehicle Rebate to apply for the sticker unless they meet certain income restrictions.
Critics worry the program could become a victim of its own success – as more clean air cars clog up the lanes, the diamond marked lanes slow down and other drivers have less incentive to carpool. When state leaders eliminated the cap on the number of green decals issued for clean energy cars in 2016, they directed Caltrans to prepare and submit an update on the status of HOV lanes throughout the State. Caltrans issued a report in 2014 that found 63 percent of carpool lane performance had been degraded, although traffic counts indicate that clean air vehicles made up only about 5 percent of HOV traffic in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
An Assembly report on the bill cited a recent UCLA study that found HOV access prompted the purchase of more than 24,000 plug-in electric cars and hybrids (about 40 percent of zero-emission sales) in urban areas.
“Study after study has shown that these decals affect consumer behavior and have incentivized Californians throughout the state to buy zero emission vehicles,” Bloom said. “This decal program is one of the most cost-effective incentive programs we have and it would be shortsighted to allow it to end while we are still working towards meeting our environmental goals.”
In Santa Monica, City leaders support the decal program.
“Creating incentives for alternative fuel vehicles makes sense and is an added bonus for consumers comparing vehicles,” said Dean Kubani, the City’s Chief Sustainability Officer. “We still hope all drivers will find trips in their week that they can transition to rail, bus, bike, or walking. Small reductions add up.”
Caltrans is in the process of adding HOV lanes to Interstate 10 east of downtown Los Angeles. When the project is completed, there will be a continuous 40 miles of carpool lane between the downtown area and I-15 in San Bernardino County. Plans to add additional HOV lanes west of downtown LA toward Santa Monica are in the planning stages, according to Metro.