Hybrid cars ordered out of Utah’s I-15 express lanes

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Traffic moves along I-15 northbound between Salt Lake City and North Salt Lake in 2015. HOV lane at far left.

Snowbird • Hybrid vehicle drivers are losing their special permission to use express lanes on Interstate 15.

About 5,000 owners of the electric-or-gas cars had paid $10 each through the years for “clean air” decals that allow drivers to use carpool lanes without additional passengers. Another 1,000 were on waiting lists hoping to obtain one if slots became available.

But Congress declined to extend permission for such use on federally funded high-occupancy vehicle lanes, so it expires on Sept. 30.

That affects only hybrids. Other clean-fuel cars — those powered entirely by electricity, compressed natural gas or propane — will still be allowed to purchase and use decals. But permission for those vehicles will expire on Sept. 30, 2025, unless Congress extends it.

“We are sending out letters and emails advising decal holders about the change,” Jason Davis, deputy director of the Utah Department of Transportation, told the Utah Transportation Commission on Friday at a meeting at Snowbird.

Now to use the express lanes, hybrid drivers will need to form carpools or pay tolls with electronic transponders “just like everyone else,” Davis said.

Because of the change, the state also will change the color of clean-air decals and issue new ones to the 1,600 or so current permit holders who will still allowed to use them. But Davis said they may not be available until November.

Davis stressed the change is a national decision, and not one made by UDOT itself.

“One of the things we’re concerned with is that people will say, ‘Hey you don’t care about clean air,’” he said. “Actually, our focus very much is on clean air. Our primary goal is to get more people to carpool” to reduce pollution and congestion. The lanes are free to cars with two or more passengers.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Traffic moves along I-15 northbound between Salt Lake City and North Salt Lake. HOV lane at far left.

With that focus, Davis said the state still determines whether excess capacity exists in those lanes beyond what is needed currently for carpools to allow some free use by clean-fuel cars and for paying tolls by single-rider cars.

The state had placed a cap of 6,600 for clean-air decals — which it hit five years ago. It maintained a waiting list for when cars were sold or withdrawn from the program.

With 5,000 hybrids now being removed from the program, it opens up plenty of room for the 600-or-so people now on waiting lists for electric, compressed natural gas and propane vehicles, Davis said.