If you're coveting a green sticker for your plug-in hybrid so you can drive solo in the carpool lane, don't dither.

More than 70 percent of the 40,000 that will be issued are already gone, leading state officials to predict that the limit could be reached this summer.

"At the rate they're going, I wouldn't be surprised," said Dan Lieberman, press secretary to state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Mateo, one of the authors of the sticker proposal.

As of Jan. 1, 28,739 green decals have been mailed to owners of vehicles meeting California's partial zero-emission vehicle requirements, such as the Chevy Volt, the Ford C-Max Energi or the plug-in Toyota Prius. That's nearly double the 15,972 green decals that had been issued as of July, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

All-electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf and Tesla or those running on alternative fuels qualify for white stickers for diamond lane privileges. So far, 39,804 white decals have been issued, up from 29,427 six months earlier. But unlike green stickers, there is no cap on the number of white stickers.

Applications for stickers heated up when a bill by Yee extended the program from 2015 until 2019. With congestion on Bay Area freeways mounting at a rate not seen since the dot-com boom 15 years ago, going solo in the carpool lane could shave real time off anyone's commute for five years to come.

"Five years gives this benefit to drivers for a long time," said Felix Kramer, an electric vehicle advocate and the founder of CalCars.


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In addition, prices for these vehicles are falling. The Nissan Leaf is $6,000 less expensive this year than in 2012, according to IHS Automotive. Leaf sales rose 130 percent in the U.S. from 2012 to 2013.

And numerous other plug-ins and EVs are less costly than two years ago. A study by Indiana University found that 9 of 10 car buyers weren't aware of a federal $7,500 tax credit, plus a $2,500 rebate in states such as California.

Lower prices, the carpool perk and today's terrible traffic means sales are heating up, and that's fueling a green sticker rush.

All this and allowing solo drivers with FasTrak to buy their way into express lanes at Highway 237, Interstate 880 and I-680 means even diamond lanes are filling up.

As a result, solo FasTrak users are banned from the 237-880 express lanes for up to an hour each day. Transportation officials say the same restrictions are likely on express lanes on other Bay Area freeways such as I-580 in the Livermore Valley when it opens next year.

John Chen, of Saratoga, has owned a Nissan Leaf since 2011, and back then he had a snappy commute on Highway 85 to Mountain View. Now he finds the diamond lanes are getting crowded.

"Over the past two and a half years, I've seen like-minded commuters join me in the HOV lane in Leafs and Volts," he said, noting that a co-worker recently bought a Volt and another a Prius plug-in.

"Both did it for the green sticker," he said.

Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.

GREEN STICKERS
  • Limit is 40,000, and 28,739 have been issued.
  • Vehicles that meet California's partial zero-emission vehicle requirements include Ford's C-Max Energi, Toyota's plug-in Prius and the Chevrolet Volt.

    WHITE STICKERS
  • No limit; 39,804 have been issued.
  • Eligible vehicles are powered by electricity, hydrogen fuel cell, liquefied petroleum gas or compressed natural gas. Examples include the Nissan Leaf and all Tesla models.
  • The sticker program allowing solo drivers into state carpool lanes ends Jan. 1, 2019.
    Source: Department of Motor Vehicles