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It won't be so simple to buy your way into the carpool lane solo with a cleaner-burning car later this year, after Utah retools its rules to match federal standards.
Your hybrid Toyota Prius, compressed natural gas Honda Civic or even smallish hybrid sport utility vehicle still gets you to the promised lane. But big hybrids and the proliferating fleet of bi-fuels cars that can burn either natural gas or gasoline will have to move over.
The change responds to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency efforts to reward those who clear the air, but it will push some who want to do so with cheaper used cars to the side.
"The state should do more to encourage people to buy alternative-fuel vehicles," not less, said North Salt Lake resident and state employee Larry Lewis. His Chevrolet Cavalier with both gasoline and CNG tanks gets him into the fast lane through Salt Lake County, but it wouldn't if he hadn't registered for a clean-fuels license before the change.
The EPA rules are proposed but not final, perhaps until fall. A bill sponsored by state Rep. Todd Kiser, R-Sandy, would make Utah's rules match the federally mandated minimum standards for solo riding in carpool lanes when the standards become effective.
Those minimums require a hybrid to get 50 percent better city mileage or 25 percent better mileage overall, compared to a similar vehicle with standard engine. They also set strict pollution standards. Vehicles that switch between fuels or have been rigged for alternate fuels after leaving the factory would not qualify.
The EPA's list of qualifying vehicles includes small- and mid-size hybrid or CNG passenger cars, such as the Honda Accord, as well as several SUVs such as the hybrid Toyota Highlander. It doesn't include the bigger Chevrolet Tahoe hybrid, for instance, which gets just better than 20 mpg, about 40 percent better than its gasoline-only counterpart.
Kiser would not comment on whether the new federal standards make sense, but said he proposed House Bill 62 to bring the state into compliance. Not complying could affect federal highway funding.
People such as Lewis, who already have their $87 clean-air license plates, would not lose them.
"We wouldn't go and start repossessing people's license plates," said Utah Department of Transportation spokesman Nile Easton. But new buyers would not be eligible.
Lewis said it makes little sense to force people like him out of the express lane. Theya re cleaning the air, and with a lack of CNG fueling stations away from the Wasatch Front, having a gasoline tank in reserve is a necessity, he said.
Utah car dealer Kevin Frazier said most of his customers who buy dual-fuel cars do so for the fuel savings, though about a third ask for the clean-fuels plates. Regardless of the new rules, he expects customers to keep coming, for the savings and for the environment.
"You can stick your nose up the tailpipe and sniff that stuff and not get a headache," Frazier said.
Car not efficient enough for the clean-fuels plate? Utah still allows motorists into express lanes if they pay $50 a month for a sticker. There are 1,700 people doing that now, and the state expects the number to increase tenfold once it introduces on-demand, electronically debited express tolls in a year or so. The tolls will be priced according to congestion and time of day.