San Diego leaders strip ‘road charge’ on drivers from $160B transportation vision

A controversial per-mile fee for drivers was scrapped Friday, September 23, from an ambitious $160 billion plan to expand bus, rail and other transportation services in the region.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria spearheaded the move at the recent San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) board meeting. The agency’s blueprint, approved by elected officials late last year, aims to improve transit services while restricting car travel by 2050.

Gloria cited the unpopularity of the proposed “road tax” before voting to remove the tax from the SANDAG plan. The motion passed with only elected representatives in Carlsbad, Del Mar and La Mesa.

“I can’t support the concept of charging people for driving if we can’t offer viable transit or other alternatives for those who are already struggling with high rents, high utility fees and everything else,” he said at the public hearing on Friday.

Green groups including the Environmental Health Coalition, San Diego 350 and the Climate Action Campaign have urged the 21-member board of elected officials to keep the per-mile charge. They argued that it would force wealthier residents with electric vehicles to pay their fair share for new investments in walking, cycling and transportation improvements.

They also pointed out that regardless of SANDAG’s plan, the state is expected to introduce its own road toll to offset dwindling state gas tax revenues related to more fuel-efficient and battery-powered vehicles. California, which banned the sale of new gas-powered cars and trucks by 2035, began its road toll pilot project in 2015 at the direction of lawmakers.

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“Road tolls can be designed to replace the gas tax and not add to the current gas tax, which incidentally becomes obsolete once everyone is in an electric car,” San Diego 350’s Bee Mittermiller said during public comment.

However, many progressive board members expressed concerns that the inclusion of the statewide toll could undermine public support for SANDAG’s regional plan. The costly vision, which envisages building an extensive network of subways capable of speeds of up to 180 km/h, assumes voters will approve three half cent sales tax hikes by 2028.

Organized labor and environmental groups failed this summer to gather enough signatures to qualify the first such tax hike for a November vote. That money would have given the agency a crucial down payment and, most importantly, funded a transit route to the airport in downtown San Diego.

Many politicians feared that opposition to the gas tax would have helped derail efforts, especially as Conservative leaders used the issue as a main talking point to attack SANDAG’s plan.

“Voters absolutely reject this concept of a road toll,” Vista councilor John Franklin said at Friday’s meeting.

Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who chairs the SANDAG board, touted the agency’s overall vision but said the road toll is a “highly speculative, very controversial, unnecessary source of funding at this time.”

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That logic didn’t sit well with progressive La Mesa council member Jack Shu, who raised concerns that the board was backing down on efforts to curb greenhouse gases.

“It is terrible for the leadership of this body, for political action, to proceed with taking out a vital element of the (regional transport plan),” he said. “The road tax is crucial for us to reduce the vehicle kilometers travelled.”

Abolishing the tax, which was due to be introduced in 2030, leaves a $14 billion hole in the agency’s plan. Officials said they could likely fix this with several alternatives, including new vehicle registrations or parking fees.

But Hasan Ikhrata, Executive Director of SANDAG, said the move will also limit the agency’s ability to discourage driving, a key strategy to curb exhaust emissions and limit traffic congestion.

“From a financial perspective, I’m less worried than from a behavioral perspective,” he told the board on Friday.

The staff also stressed that eliminating the fee could jeopardize the plan’s state and federal approval, which is needed to receive government funding. In particular, the agency hopes to capitalize on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill approved by Congress last year.

SANDAG employees said it will take about a year to complete an updated environmental analysis of the board’s direction. One of their main concerns is the loss of support from the California Air Resources Control Board, which has asked the agency to significantly reduce driving per capita by 2035.

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SANDAG had hoped to complete a number of projects by 2025 to advance its vision. Most notably, the plan calls for $1.2 billion to complete the dual-track coastal rail corridor along Interstate 5, which serves both Amtrak and freight carriers.

The plan also includes approximately $480 million for the new Otay Mesa II border crossing, which is expected to be completed by fall 2024. The new port of entry aims to drastically reduce waiting times at the border for commercial trucks, which often last four to eight hours.

Another important part of SANDAG’s plan is the construction of more than 800 miles of express or “managed” lanes serving buses, carpooling and toll customers. It also funds bike improvements such as helping to complete parts of SANDAG’s 70-mile regional bike network.

By 2035, SANDAG hopes to build a long-awaited Purple Line rail project between National City and the San Diego neighborhoods of City Heights, Kearny Mesa, and University City. Overall, the plan calls for the construction of a 200-mile commuter rail system stretching from the US-Mexico border to downtown San Diego, El Cajon and Oceanside.

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