San Diego leaders strip ‘road toll’ on drivers of $160 billion from transportation vision

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

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

Gloria cited the unpopularity of the perceived “road use fee” before the vote to remove the tax from the SANDAG plan. The proposal was passed with only elected officials in Carlsbad, Del Mar and La Mesa in opposition.

“I can’t support the concept of charging people to drive when we don’t have viable transit or other alternatives to offer to those already struggling with high rents, high interest 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, have urged the 21-member council of elected officials to maintain the mile fee. It, they argued, would force the wealthier residents who own electric cars to pay their fair share for new investments in walking, cycling and transit upgrades.

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

“The road user fee could be designed to replace the gas tax, not add it to the existing gas tax, which, by the way, would be obsolete when everyone is in an electric car,” said B Mittermiller of San Diego 350. general comment.

However, several progressive board members expressed concerns that the inclusion of county-level road tolls could undermine public support for the SANDAG regional plan. The costly vision, which calls for building a vast network of 110-mph subway trains, assumes that voters will agree to three half-cent sales tax increases by 2028.

Organized labor and environmental groups failed to gather enough signatures this summer for the quality of the first such tax increase in the November vote. These funds could have provided an important down payment for the agency, most notably funding a transit connection to the downtown San Diego airport.

Many politicians feared that opposition to the gas tax helped weaken the effort, especially as conservative leaders used the issue as a key talking point to attack the SANDAG plan.

“Voters flatly reject this notion of a road user charge,” Vista Council member John Franklin said at Friday’s meeting.

Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blackspear, who chairs the SANDAG board, described the agency’s overall vision but said the toll road was a “highly speculative, controversial, and unnecessary funding source at this time.”

That reasoning did not fit well with La Mesa Progressive Council member Jack Shaw, who has expressed concerns about the council’s rollback of efforts to rein in greenhouse gases.

“It’s horrible for the leadership of this council, for the political actions, to move forward to take a vital component out of[the regional transfer plan],” he said. “Road user fees are critical to us to reduce vehicle mileage.”

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

However, SANDAG CEO Hasan Ikhrata said the move would also limit the agency’s ability to discourage driving, a key strategy to reduce exhaust emissions and reduce traffic congestion.

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

The staff also stressed that scrapping the fees could jeopardize state and federal approval of the plan, which is necessary to attract government funding. The agency specifically hopes to benefit from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that Congress approved last year.

SANDAG staff said they would need about a year to conduct an updated environmental analysis of the council’s direction. One of its main concerns is losing the support of the California Air Resources Control Board, which has asked the agency to drastically reduce the driving rate per capita by 2035.

SANDAG had hoped to complete a set of projects until 2025 to begin its vision. Notably, the plan includes $1.2 billion to end dual tracking of the coastal rail corridor along Interstate 5, which serves Amtrak as well as shipping companies.

The plan also places about $480 million at the new Otay Mesa II border crossing, which is scheduled for completion by fall 2024. The new port of entry is expected to significantly reduce waiting times at the border for commercial trucks that often go as long as four to eight hours.

Another major part of SANDAG’s plan is to build more than 800 miles of express, or “managed” lanes that serve buses, carpools and toll-paying customers. It also funds bike improvements such as helping finish parts of SANDAG’s 70-mile network of bikes.

By 2035, SANDAG hopes to build a much-anticipated 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 the construction of a 200-mile rail system stretching from the US-Mexico border to downtown San Diego, El Cajon and Oceanside.

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