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California Defines Rules for Hybrid Electric/Gas Vehicles on Web Site

May differ on toll plazas, bridges, high-occupancy lanes

Drivers looking to steer clear of confusion about hybrid gasoline/electric vehicles' eligibility for travel in the carpool lanes on Bay Area freeways and at toll bridge toll plazas can now find their way on a state Web site. It is a free service of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the California Department of Transportation, the California Highway Patrol, and dozens of Bay Area transit and paratransit providers.

This month's signing of a new federal transportation law set in motion a state law (AB 2628) passed in 2004, which makes up to 75,000 low-emission hybrids with EPA mileage ratings of at least 45 miles per gallon eligible to use high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on California freeways regardless of how many passengers they carry. To travel in HOV lanes, hybrids with fewer occupants than required by normal carpool lane rules must display a special DMV-issued decal. The DMV is now accepting applications for the decals, which are available for an $8 fee.

Drivers whose hybrids are registered in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area must sign up for FasTrak electronic toll collection transponders before they will be issued an HOV lane access decal. Single-occupant hybrids are required to pay tolls when crossing any of the Bay Area's eight toll bridges. To qualify for toll-free passage, hybrids must meet the carpool occupancy requirements for each bridge.

"Several of the Bay Area toll bridges have dedicated HOV lanes passing through the toll plazas," explained Rod McMillan, director of bridge oversight and operations for MTC and the Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA). "The FasTrak requirement is written into the law so that single-occupant hybrids can stay in the HOV lanes and zip through the toll plazas without having to slow down to merge out of the carpool lane and into a regular toll lane to pay their toll."

Detailed instructions on how to determine eligibility for the DMV decals and how to obtain both a FasTrak transponder and a DMV decal -- as well as answers to frequently asked questions -- are also on the FasTrak Web site. There is no charge for FasTrak transponders and no monthly service fee to maintain an account. New account holders are required only to open their account with $40 in prepaid tolls.

On Bay Area freeways and toll bridges, there are now three basic scenarios for hybrid drivers:
  • Using HOV Lanes on Bay Area Highways -- Qualifying hybrid vehicles, once equipped with the DMV decal, may travel in any designated HOV lane at any time, even without the number of passengers normally required during carpool lane hours
  • At the Carquinez, Dumbarton, San Mateo-Hayward and Bay Bridge Toll Plazas -- These toll plazas have dedicated HOV lanes. Hybrids that do not meet the occupancy requirements for free peak-period travel on these bridges (minimum three occupants for the Bay Bridge and Carquinez Bridge, and minimum two occupants for the Dumbarton and San-Mateo Hayward bridges) will nonetheless be allowed to travel in the HOV lanes during morning and evening peak hours. But these vehicles will not qualify as carpools and will not be allowed toll-free passage. To pay the bridge toll from the HOV lane, these vehicles must be equipped with a FasTrak electronic toll collection transponder. Morning peak periods extend from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. on each of these bridges. Evening peak periods extend from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on the Dumbarton and San Mateo-Hayward bridges, and from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the Carquinez and Bay bridges
  • At the Antioch, Benicia-Martinez, Golden Gate and Richmond-San Rafael Bridge Toll Plazas -- These toll plazas do not have dedicated HOV lanes. Hybrids that do not meet the occupancy requirements for free peak-period travel on these bridges (minimum three occupants) must pay the toll at all times.
  • Tolls may be paid with FasTrak or cash. Morning peak periods extend from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. on the Golden Gate Bridge, and from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. on the Antioch, Benicia-Martinez and Richmond-San Rafael bridges. Evening peak periods extend from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the Antioch and Benicia-Martinez bridges, and from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on the Golden Gate Bridge.
MTC is the transportation planning, financing and coordinating agency for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area. The Bay Area Toll Authority, which is directed by the same policy board as MTC, administers tolls on the San Francisco Bay Area's seven state-owned toll bridges. Caltrans owns, operates and maintains seven Bay Area toll bridges. The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District owns and operates the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Transit and the Golden Gate Ferry system.