Alternate-fuel vehicles are out and hybrids are in along the Valley’s car pool lanes. Gov. Janet Napolitano on Friday ordered the Arizona Department of Transportation to issue new license plates to the owners of “bifuel” cars and trucks that can run on gasoline and an alternative such as propane or compressed natural gas.
These plates will replace the “alternative fuel” plates that they have been legally entitled to get until now. Those plates had allowed their owners to use car pool lanes during rush hours — and bypass traffic jams — even if they were the only ones in the vehicle.
But the bad news for owners of these vehicles was good news for drivers of some hybrid vehicles powered with both gasoline and electric engines: Napolitano’s order will permit them to use the car pool lanes that have been off-limits to solo drivers during rush hours.
Both changes are due to the Federal Highway Administration.
ADOT spokesman Doug Nintzel said the 1997 law that permitted bifuel vehicles to use car pool lanes conflicts with federal regulations. He said Napolitano decided it was time to finally bring Arizona into compliance.
In exchange, federal officials agreed to Napolitano’s request to immediately open the car pool lanes to 10,000 hybrid vehicles — at least for an unspecified test period.
Doug Hecox, spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, said the pilot program will help state and federal officials decide whether allowing these vehicles in the car pool lanes makes sense.
Hecox said one potential benefit could be providing an incentive for motorists to purchase more fuel-efficient vehicles. But Hecox said his agency also wants to be sure adding hybrid vehicles to the car pool lanes in Maricopa County does not impair traffic, either by their sheer numbers or because they may not accelerate as fast as gas-fueled vehicles.
Not all hybrids will qualify for the special treatment.
While several manufacturers produce hybrids, only those that can travel at least 45 miles per gallon on a combined cityhighway basis will be allowed to use the HOV lanes. At the moment, that includes only the Honda Insight, the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Toyota Prius.
Vehicle owners will have to apply for new license plates authorizing them to use the carpool lanes. That can be done at Motor Vehicle Division offices or at www.servicearizona.com.
Nintzel acknowledged that Napolitano’s order ousting the bifuel vehicles from the car pool lanes comes despite a 1997 state law specifically allowing owners of these vehicles to use those lanes. But he said that law probably was illegal because federal law specifically bars these vehicles from getting special treatment.
“Our stance is that it’s time to comply with the federal laws and regulations on this issue,” he said.
Anyway, Nintzel said Napolitano’s willingness to jettison the approximately 10,000 alternate-fuel vehicles from the Valley’s car pool lanes helped get the Federal Highway Administration permission to allow the hybrids.
The federal pilot program is limited to the first 10,000 eligible vehicles. But the Motor Vehicle Division said no one is likely to be turned away because there are only about 10,000 of these vehicles in the state, and about 7,000 registered in Maricopa County.