LOS ANGELES (AP) — For six years, California gave owners of hybrid cars the keys to the fast lane: permission to drive alone among carpoolers.
Now hybrids are about to lose the special privilege that was intended as a reward for saving gas and protecting the environment. The vehicles are no longer novel, their key-shaped yellow decals faded from the sun, and transportation officials want to make way for a new generation of even cleaner cars.
Starting Friday, 85,000 hybrid owners have to get back in line with the gas guzzlers, the truckers and everyone else or face steep fines.
"They can join the rest of us in traffic and suffer," said Elijah Brumfield, of Torrance, who drives a Ford Expedition SUV.
State officials say the time has come to end the hugely popular incentive program introduced in August 2005 because they've met their goal of getting drivers to switch to low-emission hybrids, which run on both electricity and gasoline.
For some Southern California road warriors, using the HOV lane can cut their commuting time in half, but it's an advantage normally reserved for cars carrying at least two or three people. Hybrid drivers who relied on the perk dread the return to gridlock and stop-and-go traffic.
"I'm really not looking forward to it," said Alan McAllister of Murrieta, who drives 55 miles each way to get to his teaching job at Fullerton College. "Over the last couple of weeks, I've been noticing me going 55 mph in the carpool lane and other people virtually at a dead stop. I can't believe I'm going to sit in that again."
California had about 57,000 registered hybrid vehicles when it became the second state after Virginia to allow hybrids with no passengers into carpool lanes. Several other states, including Arizona, Colorado and New York, followed. Some places added other benefits such as free metered parking and tax credits.
Thousands of California motorists rushed to send in $8 applications for the decals. Within a year, the Department of Motor Vehicles had issued all available permits.
Only three hybrid models — Toyota's Prius and Honda's Civic and Insight — were eligible because they met the standard of at least 45 mpg. State law initially limited the number of qualified vehicles to 75,000 to prevent hybrids from clogging the lanes, but state officials later permitted another 10,000 cars.
Hybrid sales jumped. They now make up 425,000 of nearly 32 million registered vehicles in the state. The decals quickly became a status symbol. Reports of thieves peeling off the stickers went up, as did the resale value of a used hybrid with decals.
Dianne Whitmire, fleet director of a Toyota dealer in Carson, a city south of Los Angeles, said a man once approached her at a gas station and offered $35,000 in cash for her 2007 Prius because it had decals. That was $1,000 more than she paid for her then-new car.
"He was shocked that I turned him down," said Whitmire, who drives 40 miles each way to get to her job. "I said, 'I could take that money and buy another Prius, but I can't buy time.'"
The privilege of cruising alone in the carpool lanes drew resentment from drivers who derided hybrid owners as elitist environmentalists and mocked their car of choice as the Toyota "Pious."
"It's a little unfair to see them muscle into the carpool lane while you're stuck in traffic. The economy is so bad, not everyone can afford a Prius," said Angelo Angara, who commutes in a 23-year-old Toyota Corolla.
Whitmire said even a friend joked about her looming return to the slow lanes.
"He said 'Ah ha! You have to be back in traffic with the rest of us,'" she said. "I said, 'But so will another 85,000 drivers. Think about what traffic is going to be like when we're in your way instead of out of your way?'"
State officials said hybrid owners knew the end was coming. The decals were set to expire late last year, but state lawmakers approved a six-month extension to ease the transition to the next generation of cleaner, plug-in hybrids. Starting Jan. 1, the state will award 40,000 green bumper decals to owners of these "partial zero-emission" vehicles.
A few states such as Utah have already stripped hybrids of their special access to carpool lanes. Hybrid drivers in Virginia will lose their privileges in June 2012. In Maryland, the practice ends in September 2013.
Toyota had planned to sell a plug-in hybrid car in the U.S. in 2012, but the company's production has been hampered by the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March. It's not clear when the vehicle will be available.
"That was an unintended hurdle that no one had predicted. I had hoped six months would close the gap," said Fran Pavley, a Democratic state senator who wrote the bill authorizing the incentive program and supported the extension.
She said hybrid drivers have the option of switching to even more efficient cars that run on batteries, hydrogen or compressed natural gas, which would qualify them for new white bumper decals allowing access to carpool lanes.
Drivers like McAllister and Whitmire say switching to battery is impractical because those cars cannot travel long distance without being recharged and they're not comfortable with natural gas-powered vehicles. Both are waiting to upgrade to plug-in hybrids when they hit showroom floors.
Meanwhile, they said, they planned to change their work schedules to avoid freeways during rush hour. McAllister said he's going to stock up on books on tape to endure the inevitable delays.
Police will not be forgiving. Beginning Friday, unauthorized drivers in carpool lanes will not be considered for warnings. They will be ticketed and fined at least $431.