Guest commentary: The road user charge has a place in our future transportation planning — at least for now

File photo
(File photo)

This guest commentary presents my personal opinions and does not necessarily reflect the views of my city or city council colleagues. (1, see bottom)

We need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: San Diego needs to reduce GHG emissions for our future survival and quality of life, and to avoid severe state and federal penalties if we don’t. Transportation is the largest source of GHG emissions in our region at about 40% so we need to work on that sector.

The solution is a revamped transportation system: SANDAG has a comprehensive plan (2, see bottom) to do just that. It includes road and freeway projects, new rail service, improved bus service, accommodation for autonomous vehicles, support for electric vehicles, transit to serve work and other commuters, first and last mile options, bicycle and walking projects, environmental enhancements, and more. It will reduce our GHG emissions and meet local, state, and federal requirements. It will improve transportation options for everybody, reduce commute times, improve air quality, reduce congestion, and improve all aspects of our quality of life.

The challenge is money: What does it cost and how will we pay for it? $160 billion over the next 30 years is the cost estimate. Before you choke on that number, recognize that it is estimated that climate change left unaddressed will cost the U.S. $2 trillion per year (3, see bottom). So, think of the RTP in terms of its avoided costs. From a cost benefit point of view it’s our least expensive option.

Payment strategies proposed in the RTP include a series of 1 or ½ cent sales tax ballot measures, use of TRANSNET funds, and federal and state funds. Nobody likes more taxes, but they will be subject to vote on the ballot. San Diego County voters already, twice, approved TRANSNET taxes to improve our transportation system. San Diegans know how to vote “yes” for a good plan and we know how to vote “no” on a bad one.

The Road User Charge or RUC. The RUC has garnered more attention than it deserves. Of the $160 billion RTP price tag the RUC would account for only about $14 billion or 9%. So, what is it and why is it so controversial?

A RUC is a charge by mile to use the road system.

Current gas taxes are a RUC. While we may not call it a RUC, current gas taxes (5.6% or about 54 cents a gallon at current prices) are a form of RUC. You pay these taxes every time you fill up for the right to drive our road systems. The funds are used to improve and maintain our roads. The more you drive the more you pay. Toll roads are also a current form of RUC. RUCs are not new.

Problems with gas taxes.

—We are transitioning to electric vehicles. Transitioning away from gas to EV cars and trucks is a good thing. But, EVs don’t buy gas so they don’t pay gas taxes. Currently, they use the road system for free. Gas taxes to build and repair roads are declining and are not a sustainable source to take care of our roads.

—Gas taxes are inequitable. Even used EVs are expensive. It is the well healed who can afford Teslas and other EVs. It’s the middle class and working poor who are stuck paying gas taxes with older, poor mileage, gas burners. Why would we burden this sector with the sole cost of road maintenance? That’s wrong on many levels.

The solution: Replace gas taxes by transitioning to a system where everyone, including EVs, pays as they drive. That’s called a Road User Charge.

—Such a system restores equity and sustainability. EV drivers and gas burners all pay to maintain our road system based on how much they use the road system. That’s sustainable and it’s fair.

—Gas taxes will continue to decline as more and more EVs take to the road. Those taxes need to be replaced if we value our road systems. Some type of RUC can be the answer. Done right, the overall cost to drive will go down as we replace gas taxes with lower user charges under a system where everyone pays a fair share including wealthy EV drivers.

—Nobody supports the current gas tax system plus a RUC on top, yet that is what some opponents would have you believe. These opponents create a straw man and then show it no mercy! A more productive discussion addresses what is actually proposed: developing a RUC that will work in San Diego to transition away from gas taxes to a system where everyone pays and the overall cost of driving for everyone can go down.

The RUC in the plan is a placeholder. The RUC in the RTP is a conceptual placeholder to pay for a small part (9%) of overall RTP costs.

—It’s only a concept. We can’t implement a RUC without state legislation that doesn’t exist.

— If the state authorizes RUCs in the future, we will figure out the specifics of a RUC that will work for San Diego. That’s what the RTP proposes. If we can’t build consensus we can drop it or the voters can reject it.

— It’s a mistake to take it off the table now before we even know what it will be.

I support the RUC concept set out in the RTP. I support studying it and developing specifics. Will I support its implementation? I can’t say until we put flesh on the proposal. If it shows me that, overall, driver costs will come down, it is more equitable, and is sustainable, I will support it. If not, I won’t.

Let’s be realistic. If we want to meet climate goals and avoid state and federal penalties we need a plan like the RTP and a way to pay for it. Let’s keep the RUC on the table for further study.

1. Dwight Worden is the current Mayor of the City of Del Mar and is a retired land use, environmental, and government attorney.

2. The 2050 Regional Transportation Plan or RTP adopted in December 2021.