Pay Up: No More Free Express-Lane Rides for Low-Emissions Cars in LA

Pay Up: No More Free Express-Lane Rides for Low-Emissions Cars in LA

Metro Los Angeles just revoked one of the best freebies that comes from buying an EV, PHEV, or hydrogen car: free access to carpool lanes and toll lanes when there’s just the driver aboard. The program became a victim of success. So many people bought EVs and PHEVs and took advantage that the travel times in the special lanes slowed precipitously.

The change will take effect sometime in November or December 2018. Meanwhile, EV owners and some environmental groups say the move by Los Angeles will increase pollution.

California green clean air sticker, issued to plug-in hybrids. White stickers are for EVs, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, and some CNG (compresed natural gas) vehicles.
California green clean air sticker, issued to plug-in hybrids. White stickers are for EVs, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, and some CNG (compresed natural gas) vehicles.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or Metro, last week voted 10-1 to put an end to free rides to commuters who drive solo in zero-emission vehicles. The means electric vehicles such as Tesla or the Chevrolet Bolt EV, plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) such as the Chevrolet Volt, or hydrogen-powered vehicles such as the, ah, Honda Clarity Fuel Cell or Toyota Mirai. Only a handful of hydrogen cars are sold, plus a handful of lease-only cars (typically with no buyout option) like the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell.

Currently, owners of zero-emission vehicles get a) access to carpool lanes and b) don’t have to pay tolls. Some of the roads have sliding fees — 35 cents to $2 per mile — for well-off drivers willing to pay the price to drive faster. Locally, they’re called Lexus Lanes. The sliding-scale fees at peak times discourage single-occupant from using the special lanes. But there’s no disincentive for zero-emission vehicles. No matter what time of day they use the lanes, they’re free.

10X Increase in Clean Car Stickers 2013-2018

The California DMV said the number of cars receiving green or white clean air vehicle stickers jumped 44 percent in the 14-month period ending March 1, to about 320,000. Since 2013, the number of cars issued clean air decals increased tenfold. Meanwhile, the Metro Express Lanes, the ones intended for buses and carpools, are heavily frequented by fat cats — the solo drivers willing to pay as much as $15 for about 10 miles on I-10. They make up 49 percent of the total of express lane traffic, plus 6 percent EV-PHEV drivers traveling alone.

The pending tariff for driving in an EV or PHEV in the express lanes will be minimal: 15 percent of the going rate. That $15 drive would cost $2.25. It affects the 110 Freeway from the South Bay to South Los Angeles, as well as 11-mile stretch of Interstate 10 from the San Gabriel Valley to downtown Los Angeles.

The one no-vote among the 11 cast was by board member Sheila Kuehl. She wanted to end the pay-to-play option, the one that lets solo drivers continue in the special lanes. Kuehl charged the Metro agency became addicted to the revenue, about $50 million a year. Kuehl told the Los Angeles Daily News:

If this is about decreasing congestion, it doesn’t. We should simply admit we want to convert this to a toll lane and we don’t really care about clean air. It’s because we need the money.

The Los Angeles basin is dealing with conflicting mandates. The federal government wants special lanes to move at 45 mph or faster. But California wants to deal with pollution in all forms, and getting more people into EVs, plug-in hybrids, and the occasional fuel cell car helps reduce pollution from cars. (The argument continues about the well-to-wheel costs of generating electricity and building EV battery packs.)

The state’s department of transportation, Caltrans, allows EVs to use HOV lanes statewide. However, just as the US (currently) lets California said its own pollution rules, California lets Los Angeles County control toll lanes locally.

There is precedent for ending freebies for users of low-emission vehicles for vehicles such as the Toyota Prius and other hybrids. They got yellow stickers allowing them access to HOV lanes with only the driver on-board. That phased out in July 2011.

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