Highway 82 HOV lanes to welcome hybrids | PostIndependent.com

Highway 82 HOV lanes to welcome hybrids

Scott Condon
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

BASALT ” Hybrid vehicle owners will have to enter a lottery later this year to try to win a permit to do something they already do on Highway 82.

The Colorado Department of Transportation will issue 2,000 permits to hybrid owners to allow them to drive as sole-occupant vehicles in High Occupancy Vehicle, or HOV, lanes.

The permit requirement likely will leave hybrid owners and law enforcement officers in the Roaring Fork Valley scratching their heads in bewilderment. It is a common perception among hybrid drivers and cops patrolling Highway 82 that hybrids can use the HOV lane regardless of the number of occupants.

They are wrong, said CDOT public relations director Stacey Stegman. A state law allows hybrids to use HOV lanes, Stegman said, as long as that rule doesn’t run counter to federal law. But the Federal Highways Administration never signed off on allowing hybrids to use HOV lanes when the vehicles have fewer than the required number of passengers, she said.

Therefore, those Toyota Priuses using the HOV lanes with only one occupant during restricted hours are breaking the law, according to CDOT. Hybrids get better gas mileage than most standard vehicles and they produce lower carbon emissions, so there has been support for allowing them to use HOV lanes with no restrictions.

The HOV lane exists on Highway 82 between Basalt and Buttermilk, on the outskirts of Aspen. It uses the right lane, rather than the left, so that Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses can more easily slip in and out of traffic at bus stops. The lane set-up has been a steady source of irritation for critics.

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The lane is used for three hours each weekday morning in the upvalley or Aspen-bound lanes, and for three hours each weekday afternoon for downvalley or westbound traffic. So, between 6 and 9 a.m., buses, vans and other vehicles with two or more passengers can use the HOV lane during the commute to Aspen. The same goes for downvalley traffic between 3 and 6 p.m.

Somehow over the years, owners of hybrids got the idea that they could use the HOV lanes even if they were driving alone. Cops go along with that interpretation. (A CDOT website for Highway 82 says motorcycles and “alternative fuel vehicles” can use the HOV lanes. CDOT officials said hybrids, which use electric and gas power, aren’t considered alternative fuel.)

Pitkin County Deputy Sheriff Joe Bauer said he stopped a woman traveling alone in the HOV lane about six months ago. She insisted hybrids were exempt from restrictions, so he researched the issue with officers in the Colorado State Patrol and determined she was correct.

That, indeed, is the state patrol’s interpretation, said Capt. Rich Duran, citing the appropriate state law.

CDOT’s Stegman acknowledged the issue is confusing because someone doing the research wouldn’t know state law runs counter to federal law. Single-occupant hybrids must have orange permits to travel in HOV lanes, and no such permits have been issued in Colorado, Stegman said.

Since state officials want allowances for hybrids, CDOT and the Department of Revenue are working through a bureaucratic rulemaking process to make it happen. Those rules should be in place by April or May, Stegman said.

The rules will allow hybrids that meet certain fuel-efficient standards to qualify for HOV use. However, only 2,000 permits will be issued among 13,000 hybrids currently registered in the state, by CDOT’s estimate. Hybrid owners will have to apply, and those that qualify will enter a lottery for the permits.

“It doesn’t mean there won’t be (more permits) in the future,” Stegman said.

The state wants to limit hybrid permits because it doesn’t want to overwhelm the lanes, which are intended for buses and carpool vehicles. HOV lanes exist only in the metro Denver area and Highway 82. The Roaring Fork Valley lanes aren’t close to getting overwhelmed.

“We know we have excess capacity on Highway 82,” Stegman said. But that doesn’t mean it will remain that way.

Meanwhile, CDOT plans to change the perception that hybrids can travel the HOV lanes in the Roaring Fork Valley as single-occupant vehicles.

“We’ll be working closely with law enforcement to make sure they know,” Stegman said.