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

Fog envelopes buildings in downtown San Diego as traffic backed up on southbound Interstate 5
Fog envelopes buildings in downtown San Diego as traffic backed up on southbound Interstate 5 after a traffic accident on Dec. 4, 2019.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Mayor Todd Gloria spearheads removal of regional per-mile driving tax over objections from environmental groups


A controversial per-mile fee on drivers was nixed Friday, Sept. 23, from an ambitious $160 billion plan to expand bus, rail and other transportation services across the region.

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

Gloria cited the unpopularity of the envisioned “road usage charge” before voting to remove the tax from SANDAG’s plan. The motion passed with only elected officials in Carlsbad, Del Mar and La Mesa in opposition.

“I cannot support the concept of charging people to drive when we don’t have viable transit or other alternatives to offer those who are already struggling with high rents, high utility rates and everything else,” he said at Friday’s public hearing.

Green groups, such as the Environmental Health Coalition, San Diego 350 and Climate Action Campaign, urged the 21-member board of elected officials to keep the per-mile fee. They argued that it would force more affluent residents with electric vehicles to pay their fair share for new investments in walking, biking and transit upgrades.

They also pointed out that the state is expected to roll out its own road user charge regardless of SANDAG’s plan in order to offset dwindling revenue from the state’s gas tax associated with more fuel-efficient and battery-powered vehicles. California, which has banned the sale of new gas-fueled cars and trucks by 2035, launched its road charge pilot in 2015 at the direction of the Legislature.

“Road user charges can be designed to replace the gas tax, not to be added to the current gas tax, which by the way, is going to be obsolete when everybody’s in an electric car,” said Bee Mittermiller of San Diego 350, during public comment.

However, many progressive members of the board expressed concerns that inclusion of the countywide road charge could undermine public support for SANDAG’s regional plan. The costly vision, which calls for building an extensive network of underground trains that travel up to 110 mph, assumes that voters will approve three half-cent sales tax increases by 2028.

Organized labor and environmental groups failed to gather enough signatures this summer to quality the first such tax hike for November’s ballot. That money would have provided a crucial down payment for the agency, most notably funding a transit connection to San Diego’s downtown airport.

Many politicians feared that opposition to the gas tax helped sink the effort, especially since conservative leaders have used the issue as a major talking point to attack SANDAG’s plan.

“The voters absolutely reject this concept of a road user charge,” Vista Councilmember 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 charge was a “highly speculative, very controversial, unneeded funding source at this time.”

That logic didn’t sit well with progressive La Mesa Councilmember Jack Shu, who expressed concerns that the board was backtracking on efforts to rein in greenhouse gases.

“It’s terrible for the leadership of this board, for political actions, to move ahead with taking out a vital element of the (regional transportation plan),” he said. “The road user fee is critical for us to reduce vehicle miles traveled.”

Removing the tax, which was planned to be implemented in 2030, leaves a $14 billion hole in the agency’s plan. Officials said they could likely patch that with several alternatives, including new vehicle registration or parking fees.

However, SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata said the move will also limit the agency’s ability to discourage driving, a key strategy for curbing tailpipe emissions and limiting traffic congestion.

“From the financial standpoint, I’m not as worried, as from the behavioral standpoint,” he told the board Friday.

Staff also stressed that removing the fee could jeopardize state and federal approval of the plan, which is needed to attract government funding. The agency specifically hopes to capitalize on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill approved by Congress last year.

SANDAG staff said it will need about a year to do an updated environmental analysis of the board’s direction. One of its main concerns is losing the support of the California Air Resources Control Board, which has required the agency to significantly reduce per capita driving by 2035.

SANDAG had hoped to complete a suite of projects through 2025 to kickstart its vision. Most notably, the plan includes $1.2 billion to finish double tracking the coastal rail corridor along Interstate 5, which services Amtrak as well as freight carriers.

The plan also puts around $480 million toward the new Otay Mesa II border crossing, which is slated for completion by fall 2024. The new port of entry is expected to dramatically reduce border wait times for commercial trucks that often hit four to eight hours.

Another major part of SANDAG’s plan is building out more than 800 miles of express or “managed” lanes that service buses, carpools and toll-paying customers. It also funds bicycle improvements such as helping to finish portions of SANDAG’s 70-mile regional bicycle 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. In total, the plan calls for building a 200-mile commuter rail system stretching from the U.S.-Mexico border to downtown San Diego, El Cajon and Oceanside.