November 1, 2005
Access Denied, Denied

By Debra Saunders

When federal rules changed in August to allow California owners of high-mileage low-emitting hybrid cars -- the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid and some Honda Insights -- to drive solo in high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, there was joy in hybrid land. That joy, alas, turned into outrage at how ugly the oversized puke-colored decals are.

Ugly is the least of it. Here in the Bay Area, where hybrid car owners have to wend their way through two bureaucracies -- the DMV and FasTrak hell -- many hybrid owners are still waiting for the ugly puke-colored stickers.

Assembly member Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, who introduced the hybrid/HOV bill, has written to officialdom in hopes of a decal makeover. Some believe they're ugly for a reason -- a plot by SUV owners or oil companies is suspected. No, insiders tell me: The California Highway Patrol demands big stickers because they're easy for officers to see. Ditto drivers stuck in slow-moving traffic, who might spy lone drivers in the HOV lane and, if they don't notice the hybrid decals, get ideas about cheating.

You can blame the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for the decal delay -- or thank the MTC, if you don't own a hybrid. At first, the MTC opposed Pavley's plans to reward hybrid owners with access to the HOV lanes -- because HOV lane drivers pay no tolls. Fearing it would lose millions in bridge-toll revenues from low-occupancy hybrids, the MTC proposed that hybrid owners could drive in Bay Area HOV lanes, but still would have to pay tolls. A compromise was born. The bill passed.

As a result, hybrid owners have to get a special transponder that sends a signal in HOV lanes to charge the toll. Even if you don't drive across the bridges, you have to get the special FasTrak hybrid transponder.

Carrie Hudiburgh, who lives in Sunnyvale and drives once a week to San Francisco, had to spend $40 for a transponder she doesn't use. "They need to rethink that because it's ridiculous," she noted. It took Hudiburgh at least six weeks to get her HOV decals. When they arrived, they were so ugly that she still hasn't put them on her Prius.

Just an eight-week wait? Hudiburgh is lucky she had no transponder before buying her Prius, because if she had, she might still be waiting. I'm still waiting for my decals, and I signed up more than eight weeks ago.

My mistake, according to MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler, was to go first to the DMV. He tells friends to go to FasTrak first. Even still, both bureaucracies use such incomprehensible language it's hard to know what to do when you're dealing with them. The MTC has updated its language due to complaints, but it still isn't as clear.

This is what the DMV tells you: "If the Clean Air Vehicle is a hybrid and you are a resident of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano or Sonoma County, you must include an original receipt from Bay Area FasTrak as evidence of a 'FasTrak' toll account." Note, I want to shout: It doesn't tell you that you need a new special transponder.

This is what hybrid/HOV websites should say: If you have a FasTrak transponder, you have to get a new hybrid transponder. First, go FasTrak -- and don't bother trying to do it by phone. Go to the offices at 475 Embarcadero and trade in your old device for a new one.

Then, because no one in authority (read: the governor's office) cares to make this easy for you, you have to mail your FasTrak forms to the DMV.

Then wait weeks, because the overworked folks in the DMV are too busy explaining the new system to process the forms promptly.

Rentschler assures me that when the paperwork comes through and I'm sailing by all those parked cars preparing to brave the Bay Bridge, the weeks -- now months -- of waiting will fade away like a bad dream. (OK, that's my language, not his.)

Meanwhile, when I do sit in traffic, I watch all the other sticker-less hybrids idling near me. At least when my Honda Civic Hybrid isn't moving, it's running on the battery, not gas. And, every once in a while, I catch the rare sighting of a hybrid with its decals speeding by.

If I were a personnel director, I'd hire those decaled hybrid drivers. They must be geniuses. The smartest swells on the road. They've negotiated through two bureaucracies while lesser mortals (like me) sit, stew and wait.

Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate

Debra Saunders

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