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SANDAG's proposed road-user charge
The SANDAG board once again debated a proposed road user charge and other fees after three prominent board members recently announced their opposition to the proposal. Photo by Steve Puterski
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Blakespear, Gloria reverse course on mileage charge, debate continues

REGION — In a surprising move, three prominent elected officials on the San Diego Association of Government’s board of directors suddenly voiced concerns with a mileage charge last week after more than a year of debate over the controversial proposal.

Encinitas Mayor and SANDAG chairwoman Catherine Blakespear, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis each released statements in opposition to a proposed road-user charge just hours before the board’s Dec. 3 meeting.

“I’ve heard from countless San Diegans about this plan,” Gloria said. “We have received a resoundingly clear message that a road charge is concerning. I share that concern. I don’t think this particular part of the plan we should be considering.”

During the meeting, both Gloria and Blakespear said a per-mile fee for drivers, which was increased to four cents per mile, should be taken out of the 2021 Regional Plan, also known as “5 Big Moves.”

San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones, whose city was the first to pass a resolution in opposition of any new taxes, charges or fees imposed by SANDAG in October, questioned the authenticity of their statements, noting that several board members, including Supervisor Jim Desmond, have raised these concerns since the plan was released last year.

Specifically, opponents questioned how a four-cents-per-mile road user charge and two proposed half-cent tax increases (in 2022 and 2028) will help middle-class and low-income drivers who commute daily to work.

“I am shocked by these comments because for two (calendar) years we’ve been talking about this,” Jones said. “Many of the board members have repeatedly said road user charges are not OK. I think this is a complete confusion tactic.”

In addition to San Marcos, Vista, Escondido and Oceanside all have passed resolutions in opposition to the proposed new charges, while Del Mar was split.

state Route 78 mileage charge
Many highway and road projects in North County, such as widening state Route 78 (pictured) are expected to be scrapped as part of SANDAG’s 2021 Regional Plan. Photo by Steve Puterski

In late October, SANDAG received more than 1,500 comments on the draft 2021 Regional Plan, many of which were critical of proposed taxes and fees, according to multiple news reports. But amidst public criticism, Blakespear touted the draft plan with no mention of opposing a mileage charge.

“The 2021 Regional Plan is an unprecedented investment in the San Diego region’s future,” Blakespear’s statement reads. “We have listened to the community and are proposing a modernized transportation system through the 2021 Regional Plan that works for everyone, with affordable options that get us to the people and places we want to go in a safer and cleaner way.”

Carl DeMaio, a conservative radio host and founder of Reform California, recently issued a statement blasting the representatives’ collective about-face, specifically questioning Gloria’s motivations.

“When it comes to costly tax hikes, we don’t trust Todd Gloria for a second,” DeMaio wrote. “Todd Gloria says he doesn’t want a Mileage Tax right now, but he still intends to vote for the SANDAG plan that includes a Mileage Tax! Todd Gloria is simply playing political games to buy some time because he is still backing a massive sales tax hike being put on the November election.

“San Diego drivers will not be safe from a costly Mileage Tax until we replace Todd Gloria and other SANDAG board members with new leaders who will oppose all tax hikes and force SANDAG to fulfill its promises made to taxpayers to fix our roads.”

What’s the plan?

SANDAG released its final plan on Nov. 30 with expectations the board would approve it on Dec. 10. But several board members, including Jones, Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall, Del Mar Mayor Terry Gaasterland and Oceanside City Councilman Chris Rodriguez, called for a 90-day delay to allow city staff to review the 1,000-plus page document.

According to the plan, many of the improvements in North County come in the form of managed lanes, or toll roads, on state Route 78 and interstates 5 and 15. The managed lanes would leave just one dedicated lane open to all motorists, while the other lanes would come with another charge.

Hall said the plan will cut major highway and road projects originally planned through the first TransNet tax passed in 2004, including further widening of Interstate 5, state Route 78 and other interchanges.

Rodriguez said it appears SANDAG is heading down the same path with proposed tax increases to fund large-scale plans. Gaasterland said gas taxes and the road user charge should be separated, with the state taking the lead on those processes.

Where’s the money?

Jones said she could not vote in favor of the plan for those reasons mentioned by her counterparts, along with no clear funding mechanisms locked in place. Should the board remove the road user charge, it would eliminate more than at least $10 billion in funding.

Additionally, a majority of the board has also called for free transit for all by 2030, which would eliminate at least another $14 billion from the plan, while leaving the North County Transit District and San Diego Metropolitan Transit System in financial distress. Both transit agencies are projected to have a 40% operating budget shortfall until 2048.

“TransNet is not supposed to fund all of transit,” Blakespear said. “Transit costs are funded by recovery boxes and grants. We can’t rebalance these different buckets without knowing how they all operate.”

According to the final draft, the cost of the plan is $172 billion, but those calculations were made with 2020 dollars. In the year of expenditure, the cost rises to $269 billion, which accounts for inflation and increases in labor and materials costs, according to a clarifying email from SANDAG.