Carpool decals set to expire for hundreds of thousands of California drivers with clean-air vehicles
Clarence Dold has been a proud owner of a used Nissan Leaf electric car since 2016. Back when he was commuting to San Mateo from his home in Santa Rosa, being able to slide into the carpool lane and cruise past cars sitting idly in traffic was an added bonus to the smaller climate footprint of his electric vehicle. But as of Jan. 1, Dold and nearly 215,000 zero- and low-emission car owners in the state of California are set to lose their clean-air carpool status. That group is composed of electric and hybrid vehicles.
The state Legislature last year passed a measure that will no longer recognize the yellow carpool decals on clean-air vehicles purchased before 2017. Only vehicles purchased since then will qualify for the new passes, which are red. Those qualifying owners will have to apply to the state for the new passes.
Dold, who learned of the new law only weeks ago, said he felt the change unfairly treats drivers who have long invested in low-emission vehicles.
“What upsets me is that I thought I was going to get to use the decal for three years, and had I waited even just a few months, I would have qualified for the extension,” Dold said.
The new law is an attempt to address the overcrowding of carpool lanes - a result partly of California’s bid to spur the wider adoption of cleaner-burning vehicles 13 years ago by first offering owners of hybrid cars unrestricted access to carpool lanes. Caltrans documented the problem two years ago, pointing partly to increased carpool traffic stemming from clean-air decals.
California has the largest share of low- and zero-emission vehicles in the nation by far.
As of October 2017, 337,483 electric cars had been sold in the state, according to a report by Next 10, a San Francisco organization that works with leaders to target key issues in the state. Last year alone, California drivers bought over half of the 152,288 electric vehicles sold in the U.S., Next 10 reported.
Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm, which works with local organizations and legislators to provide better transit opportunities in Northern California, said the new carpool law was necessary.
“We needed to do something, and this compromise has winners, and the obvious losers are the ones with permits from before 2017,” Cohen said. “But by doing that, it is allowing Caltrans to keep the program going and allowing new cars into the system.”
But California’s traffic problems need more ambitious solutions, including investments that expand use of public transportation, Cohen said. He also called for a stronger crackdown on carpool cheaters.
The Caltrans report from 2016 discovered that a large contributor to crowding in carpool lanes stemmed from an increase in cars with decals, as well as an influx in single drivers weaving in and out to bypass traffic.
Carpool lanes are steadily losing their effectiveness as more drivers, legally and not, use them in the hopes of skirting traffic, Caltrans found. Over 1,300 lane-miles of the state’s carpool system were monitored for the study. It showed that carpool sections are flowing at 45 mph only 30 percent of the time, rendering the lanes ineffective in most parts of the state.
Clean-air vehicle drivers caught in carpool lanes next year without the new red decal could face a fine of at least $490, according to Caltrans.
Going forward, owners of new plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles who make less than $150,000 per year will still qualify for the decal and a separate clean-air rebate of up to $7,000. Those making $150,000 or more will have to choose between the two incentives.
The new law comes as California looks toward a future with an emission-free vehicle fleet within several decades. Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order this year calling for 5 million zero-emission cars to be on the roads by 2030.
But while electric vehicles have been shown to be demonstrably cleaner than fossil-fuel-powered autos - even in locales that derive electricity from carbon-heavy sources - some question whether the long-term reliance on greener vehicles will translate to a cleaner environment.
Professors in the geography and planning department at Sonoma State University have debated that issue for years.
Professor Jeff Baldwin, the chair of the department and an avid cyclist, said electric cars need to be studied much more closely to fully understand their impacts on the environment. His concerns point to whether the manufacturing process is as green as made out to be.
But his colleague Kevin Fang, an assistant geography professor, calls California’s push for wider adoption of electric vehicles “a bullish attempt to reduce emissions.”
What leaders should also be focusing on is reducing the amount of driving being done per person, Fang said, which would help reach long-term goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
But Rocky Rohwedder, professor emeritus at SSU, said electric vehicles and the carpool decal program are not transportation solutions for the present era.
“The original law was designed to serve in part as a catalyst to promote electric vehicle car purchases, and now the robust status of that growing industry might suggest it is an idea whose time is gone,” Rohwedder said.
Fang voiced concern that the new carpool measure for electric vehicles would benefit only higher-income drivers - those able to afford, for example, the $30,000 starting cost of a new electric Chevrolet Volt.
To help middle-income drivers, he said, the state should have retained the decal program for older-model hybrid vehicles, which are more affordable.
All three professors agree that residents in Sonoma County could make more extensive use of the SMART train as a more environmentally friendly commuting option.
The most pressing concern for Santa Rosa resident Sean Burchell is that in a matter of days he will lose the opportunity to commute in the carpool lane. He bought a hybrid Chevrolet Volt in 2015 and does not plan on buying a new car to qualify for the updated decal.
Burchell would rather see new initiatives aimed at helping officers catch single drivers violating carpool laws.
“I am pretty frustrated and angry this is happening because I charge my vehicle every night for my daily commute, which reduces my carbon footprint,” Burchell said. “A main incentive of buying my car was the permission to drive in the carpool lane, and I don’t agree with the reasoning for why I am losing this authorization.”