Why some vehicles are set to lose access to carpool lanes in California

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For the first time since 1999, carpool lanes in California will likely soon be reserved for carpools only.

Barring congressional action, come Sept. 30, 2025, the maroon, green and yellow stickers allowing electric, plug-in hybrid and compressed natural gas vehicles to use the carpool lanes — regardless of the number of occupants — will expire, along with federal authorization to let them into the diamond lanes.

Extending the exception for those vehicles would take action by Congress as well as the state Legislature.

“Congress must first act before California could extend the program,” state Department of Motor Vehicles spokesperson Chris Orrock told the Chronicle.

Officials with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the regional transportation planning agency that administers Bay Area carpool lanes, said they haven’t heard rumblings of legislation at either level to extend access to the lanes for low- and zero-emission vehicles.

John Goodwin, a commission spokesperson, said it seems unlikely that the current Congress, with its antipathy toward California as well as electric cars, will authorize the extension of a program intended to promote the sales of alternative fuel vehicles.

“I would expect no reprieve for electric vehicle drivers,” he said.

According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, which administers the clean-air decal program, a total of 411,133 vehicles have currently valid stickers granting them admission to the carpool lanes statewide. Figures for the Bay Area were not immediately available.

California started allowing clean-air vehicles into the carpool lanes in 1999 as an incentive to consumers to buy them. At first, most of the cars were gas-electric hybrids like the early Toyota Prius, and white stickers were issued to identify which cars were allowed to ignore the minimum occupancy requirements.

Over the years, the DMV, working with the California Air Resources Board, modified the eligibility rules and the length of time the decals would be valid — and went through a rainbow of decals along the way.

The current program allows drivers of certain qualifying electric, plug-in hybrid, compressed natural gas and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to get stickers that last for four years. Drivers who got stickers in 2021 will see them expire on Jan. 1. Everyone who bought a clean air vehicle after that date will lose their eligibility for the carpool lane on Sept. 30, 2025.

It is unclear what impact the end of the sticker program will have on Bay Area carpool lanes or on the sales of electric cars.

Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2020 issued an executive order phasing out the sales of new gas-fueled cars, with a ban taking effect in 2035. Electric car sales are on the rise in California and across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Kicking out electric cars could ease crowding in carpool lanes, which during commute hours can sometimes be as congested as the unrestricted lanes. No counts are available tallying the number of vehicles in the carpool lanes with clean air stickers versus the number with a valid number of occupants — or the large number of cheaters who enter the carpool lanes with neither stickers nor passengers.

“I’m hesitant to make a prediction but very interested to see what happens,” Goodwin said.

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