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It’s not easy being green: California strips HOV rights from clean-air cars

More than 200,000 environmentally-conscious California drivers are ticked off. Many early adopter low emission vehicle (LEV) and zero emission vehicle (ZEV) drivers in California will lose their right to use highway carpool lanes as of January 1, 2019, the L.A.Times reports.

An “Access OK – Clean Air Vehicle” decal that allows solo drivers to travel in less crowded High Occupancy Vehicle (HOW) lanes otherwise restricted to vehicles with multiple passengers is one of the greatest perks for buying LEVs and ZEVs in California.

The Golden State provides generous financial benefits to clean ride buyers, but faster transport on the state’s infamously traffic-clogged highways has a greater appeal than rebates or credits for many. The LA Times cited a UCLA study that “found the ability to drive alone in a carpool lane or a toll lane is the ‘single biggest incentive’ for Californians to buy a zero-emission vehicle if they live within 10 miles of such a lane.”

The decal program originated in 2012, but now the HOV lanes are too crowded, according to the state. Therefore, the California legislature voted to limit the number of people who can have the clean-air decals.

Here’s what will happen starting in 2019. Car owners who received green or white clean air decals before January 1, 2017 will not get renewal stickers if they keep their current cars, regardless of vehicle age, mileage, or emissions level. Red decals issued under a new program that started in March 2018 will be valid until January 1, 2022.

White and green decal holders, however, can only get a new sticker if they buy a new qualifying car or, and this is a bit tricky, if they buy a used car that never had a decal but would have qualified in 2017 or 2018. So, theoretically, if you own a 2016 Toyota Prius with a decal, you could trade with someone in Nevada for an identical year and model car and then bring the replacement vehicle back to California to get a new decal.

The program has another new twist. People who earn more than $150,000 for single filers, $204,000 for heads of households, and $300,000 for joint filers will have restricted benefits.

Californians who are upset with the new plan argue that gas-guzzler drivers who cheat by driving alone in HOV lanes are to blame for the congestion. Caltrans agrees, saying 1 in 4 cars in commuter lanes shouldn’t be there in some areas.

Others point to the inconsistency of a program designed to improve air quality by encouraging cleaner emission vehicles that now punishes the early adopters who helped make the program successful.

“There need to be continued incentives to get people to drive electric,” said Plug in America policy director Katherine Stainken. “And we’re not making it easy for someone to make that choice.”

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