By Alex Dobuzinskis and R.T. Watson
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The fast, easy ride is about to end for owners of hybrid cars in California.
With motorists hitting the road for the long July Fourth holiday weekend on Friday, a state program will expire that has for six years allowed drivers of gasoline-electric vehicles to zip through freeway traffic in the express lanes otherwise reserved for carpools.
California has bestowed carpool passes on 85,000 motorists in cars such as the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic Hybrid, who were given stickers they slapped on their vehicles designating them as "clean air" automobiles.
The end of the carpool allowance has hybrid owners grumbling, while warming the hearts of motorists who rely on old-fashioned internal combustion engines for their commutes.
"Now, I think people are just left with an ugly car that they have to drive in the same lanes as everyone else," said sport utility vehicle owner Erwan Le Bayon, 38.
Le Bayon commutes two hours round-trip every day to work from his home in Aliso Viejo in southern California.
California created the program, which always had a built-in sunset provision, to encourage motorists to choose low-polluting vehicles. A revised program is set to take effect next year that will provide similar incentives to a newer generation of clean cars.
Because they can plug into an external power source, the Chevy Volt and the next-generation Prius Hybrid are expected to qualify for California's green carpool sticker coming out on January 1, 2012. The state will issue 40,000 of those stickers, which will expire in 2015.
Ending the program for the first-generation hybrids was necessary to make room for the next wave, supporters say.
"If you have these stickers go on forever and then you create the new stickers for the cleaner cars, eventually you just fill up those lanes and there's no point to them," said Adam Keigwin, a spokesman for state Senator Leland Yee.
Yee, who represents San Francisco and neighboring San Mateo County and drives a Toyota Highlander Hybrid, introduced the bill to extend the original program from its last expiration date of December 2010.
Manufacturers and dealers estimate California consumers purchased 100,000 hybrid cars over the years to take advantage of the carpool program, Keigwin said.
The carpool stickers program was so successful that supply far exceeded demand, so much so that in the used-car market, a hybrid vehicle with a sticker on it would command a sales premium of $3,000 to $6,000, he said.
There are over 400,000 hybrid cars now registered with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, said Jaime Garza, a spokesman for the agency.
Charles Kleeman, a doctor from the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Monica, has one of those cars -- a Toyota Prius. He was unaware the carpool lane program was expiring, but said it did not bother him because he is not a "real fast" driver.
"My opinion is that there are people who like driving fast, and like driving in the carpool lane even when they don't have enough people in the car," he said.
The California carpool lanes -- which for regular gasoline-burning cars requires a minimum of two occupants to gain entry -- are still open to owners of compressed natural gas and electric vehicles. They get a white sticker.
Over 15,000 vehicles have qualified for that program, which ends in 2015.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Jerry Norton)