Published on May 29, 2011 by the San Francisco Chronicle
For the past six years, those mustard-yellow stickers affixed to the haunches of 85,000 California hybrid vehicles have been golden.
Not only have they granted solo drivers free admission to the carpool lane, they have also boosted the resale value of the vehicles by thousands of dollars. But in little more than a month, the stickers will lose their luster. On July 1, with hybrid cars no longer an unusual sight in the Golden State, the decals will expire, becoming worth no more than a fading, peeling bumper sticker.
While some hybrid owners are loath to surrender their free rides in the fast lane, state officials say this is definitely the end for the program, which was begun in 2005 as a way to persuade drivers to take a chance on what was then a nascent technology. It was expanded once and extended twice.
But this is the end, said Armando Botello, a spokesman for the Department of Motor Vehicles, which administered the program. The DMV recently sent letters to yellow-sticker holders reminding them of the program’s imminent demise.
“We’re done,” he said. “If they’re found driving solo in the carpool lanes, they will be subject to being ticketed.”
A new program, tentatively called the green-sticker program, is scheduled to start in January. Details are still being worked out, but the beneficiaries are likely to be owners of plug-in hybrid vehicles, which are supposed to start hitting the market early next year. Under the program, 40,000 drivers who own or lease “advanced technology” low-emissions vehicles can get stickers allowing them into the carpool lanes until 2015.
White stickers till 2015
California also has a white-sticker program that allows zero-emission vehicles, including all-electric, hydrogen fuel cell and some compressed natural gas vehicles, access to the carpool lanes. That program is open to an unlimited number of vehicles until it also expires in 2015. So far, about 10,000 white stickers have been issued.
The death of the yellow decal program, of course, is not a sign of failure. After all, there are now 423,180 hybrid vehicles registered in California, according to the DMV. But did the popularity of the sticker program persuade people to buy hybrids, or was it environmental awareness, high gas prices and improving technology that drove the widespread acceptance – and popularity – of hybrids?
“It’s a little of everything,” said John Swanton, an air pollution specialist with the California Air Resources Board, which sets the standards and decides which vehicles qualify for clean air stickers.
When the program started in September 2005, he said, “Hybrids weren’t unheard of, but they were a niche market at best. … The negative voices on hybrids were louder than those promoting them.”
To get more drivers to buy or lease hybrids, the state Legislature created the sticker program, which offered a low-cost incentive to go along with state and federal financial incentives being offered at the time.
“A lot of people bought (hybrids) strictly for selfish reasons – to get into the carpool lane,” Swanton said.
A year into the program, it became obvious the original limit of 75,000 stickers would quickly be exceeded. The Legislature added another 10,000 and extended the program until Jan. 1 of this year. Last year, it was lengthened another six months.
It’s difficult to place a monetary value on the time savings accrued by hybrid owners who gained admission to the carpool lanes.
“For people who lived a long way from work, it was incredibly valuable,” said Randy Rentschler, a Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman.
A 2007 study by Kelley Blue Book for USA Today found that Toyota Priuses with the state-issued stickers were fetching as much as $4,000 more than those without the stickers when they were resold. State law allows the stickers to be sold with the qualifying car.
About the time yellow-sticker fever hit California, so did a spike in gas prices. Concerns about the environment and the nation’s dependence on foreign oil also fueled interest in hybrids. Sales soared – even without access to the carpool lanes.
“Regardless of the reasons behind it, we quickly went from 85,000 to 100,000,” he said. “Hybrid vehicles became commonplace – and that’s what we wanted to happen.”
So far, the same hasn’t happened with electric cars or other zero-emission vehicles. But with plug-in hybrids hitting the market next year, environmentalists hope the stickers will again be an incentive to nurture interest in new types of vehicles.
“Hybrids have been around a long time now – there are over 30 hybrids on the market now,” said Don Anair, a senior vehicles analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Berkeley. “So it makes sense to be evolving the (sticker) program.”
Critics of the programs argue that they could clog the carpool lanes with cars carrying only a driver and provide a disincentive to carpoolers, who do far more to clean the air by taking cars off the road. So far, that hasn’t happened. But between now and the start of the green-sticker program, Caltrans plans to study traffic speeds in the carpool lanes to help determine the impact of admitting clean vehicles, Swanton said.
Whatever the outcome of the study, and the effect of the green stickers on plug-in hybrid sales, Anair said, there are simpler and more effective ways of cutting air pollution.
“We can drive less. We can carpool,” he said. “That’s even better.”