Golden Gate number plates stuck in slow lane

It's been a year since plans were unveiled for Bay Area number plates featuring an image of the Golden Gate Bridge.

But there are no Bay Area bumpers sporting the number plates - and there won't be anytime soon.

Sales of the special plates - at a cost of $50, or $90 for vanity plates were meant to benefit wildlife habitat, parks, trails and public recreation in the nine-county Bay Area. But the state won't begin producing the number plates until sponsors sign up 7,500 people willing to pay in advance.

And with just weeks before the one-year deadline, only about 300 vehicle owners have committed to buying the bridge number plates, said Amy Hutzel, manager of the Coastal Conservancy's San Francisco Bay conservation program.

"It's going pretty slowly," she said. "It's definitely not where we thought it would be."

Everybody assumed the number plates would be popular. Officials at the Golden Gate Bridge district even objected to the Coastal Conservancy's plans and engaged in a brief feud over the right to use the bridge's image, before joining the coalition backing the plates.

"We'd certainly love to see them on our number plates," said Mary Currie, district spokeswoman.

The plate features a rectangular drawing on the left side that shows the bridge, the Marin Headlands in the background and a pair of birds in the sky. Across the bottom is the message, "Nature within reach."

The design is not nearly as flashy as some of the 10 special number plates now being sold, such as the conservancy's whale-tail plate, which sports that image in blue as the background for the vehicle license characters.

That design is popular with car owners but not with the police, who cited it as a prime example of number plates whose characters are hard to pick up quickly.

The complaint prompted a state law requiring new special interest plates to have a plain white background. Images can be placed to the left of the plates characters. The law also imposed the one-year deadline for selling 7,500 number plates before they could be issued.

Hutzel blamed the lack of sales on the credit cruch. Not only are people cutting back on unnecessary expenses, she said, but agencies such as the Coastal Conservancy are struggling with budget cuts and concentrating on sheer survival.

The conservancy promoted the bridge number plates on radio and on an Interstate 80 billboard for a time after they were unveiled on July 21. But as the recession set in, the campaign shrank to a few ads in nonprofits' newsletters.

It's not just the Golden Gate number plates that are suffering. According to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, sales of special interest plates dropped about 20 percent in 2008 from the year before.

But there's no question that Californians still like distinctive number plates, be they vanity plates that allow owners to choose their own license characters, or special interest plates that raise money for state agencies and charities ranging from the conservancy to the UCLA Alumni Association and a fund to prevent injuries to children.

According to the DMV, sales of personalised number plates dipped about 2 percent in 2008 but have rebounded 1 percent in the past six months. About 1.1 million California vehicles sport vanity plates.

The "Kids" plate, featuring a garden of poppies across the bottom and a child's handprint, star or cross on the left, is the biggest selling special interest plate. At the end of 2008, 224,033 of the plates adorned bumpers. The whale's tail is the first runner-up, with over 170,000 sold.

Plates bearing the image of a bruin and the UCLA name are the least popular, with about 5,000 being sold.

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