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SANDAG looks at tax increases, ballot measures to fund 5 Big Moves
Supervisor Jim Desmond, who represents a large portion of North County, is pushing back against SANDAG's proposed transportation taxes to help fund its "5 Big Moves" plan. File photo
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Desmond pushes back against SANDAG’s proposed taxes, mileage tracking

REGION — The San Diego Association of Governments is pushing hard for new transportation taxes to build out its proposed “5 Big Moves.”

The mostly transit-centric proposal was unveiled in 2019 and its budget was revealed last year and its funding mechanisms have drawn the ire of numerous elected officials.

In particular, Supervisor Jim Desmond is dismayed at SANDAG’s call for a tax-per-mile, potential “tax and track” and two ballot measures to fund the estimated $163 billion project.

The project proposes going all-in on transit, such as more trains, trolleys, buses and mobility hubs leveraging flexible fleets to address traffic congestion and greenhouse gases. SANDAG is tasked with presenting a comprehensive transportation plan through 2050 meeting climate and traffic goals.

“Unfortunately, they are trying to ease traffic congestion by taxing you out of your car,” Desmond said. “They promised, for North County, two HOV lanes up the I-5 (interstate) and they’re only building one. And one HOV lane across the 78 (state route) and they’ve said they’re not going to build those at all.”

In addition to the more than $1 county residents pay in transportation and gas taxes, SANDAG is proposing more, including a state mileage-based road user fee of 2.3 cents, local road user charge of 2 cents and two upcoming ballot measures — a local sales tax of 0.5 cents and a Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) sales tax of 0.5 cents.

The state mileage-based road user fee would increase 2.7% annually until 2050, the local tax would be implemented in 2026 and would also increase at 2.7% annually until 2050.

Residents already pay transportation taxes from gas, the DMV, Senate Bill 1 and TransNet, which collects 0.5 cents until 2048, Desmond said.

The Oceanside City Council recently voted 4-1 to send a letter of opposition to the SANDAG Board of Directors regarding the new taxes.

Desmond said the focus on old technology, such as busses and trains, should be left in the past and SANDAG must prioritize new technology through electric and autonomous vehicles. Most major auto manufacturers are ramping up zero-emission vehicle production and investing billions through 2035.

At that point, according to Desmond, it is likely the county will have reached its greenhouse gas (GHG) goals as more people purchase electric vehicles.

But the possibility of a “tax and track” gives Desmond pause. The plan doesn’t reveal how the county intends to track a vehicle’s mileage, but he said there is no need for the county to engage in such a practice.

SANDAG has not yet released how potential tracking of miles would be calculated.

“Basically, anytime you’re on the road in your own private vehicle … or any vehicle, you will be taxed for the number of miles you drive,” Desmond added. “You’re going to be taxed and tracked.”

Proponents point to the success of Interstate 15 with its managed lanes, i.e., toll roads, as a way to generate revenue, especially for single-occupancy vehicles. Those, such as SANDAG Executive Director, have said the goal is to reduce vehicles miles traveled and increasing transit ridership from 3.5% to 10% by 2050.

However, SANDAG has yet to review any trends as to how the pandemic is will alter the transportation and workforce landscape. Chief Economist Ray Major said in August 2020 SANDAG was projecting at least 33% of the county workforce to telecommute.

Major said the plan is also a pathway to social and economic equity, noting minority, low income and seniors.

“Only about a third of the jobs are really telecommutable,” Major said. “People will still need to run errands, take their kids to school, go to health appointments.”

However, the 5 Big Moves already implemented a pilot program in Carlsbad, known as the Carlsbad Connector, which was suspended in July 2020 due to the pandemic. The connector was part of a mobility hub and flexible fleet at the Poinsettia Transit Station, where train riders used an app to connect with a shuttle to take them to work.

Known as the “first and last mile,” another goal of the 5 Big Moves is to connect riders more easily with other transportation options to encourage transit use. In Carlsbad, the city reported more than 400 riders per week used the service and a 96% on-time rate.

“The success of the Carlsbad Connector is a great example of how partnership and technology can enhance connectivity, increase sustainability and improve quality of life in the San Diego region,” Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear said last year prior to being named chair of SANDAG. “As SANDAG develops the blueprint for the future of transportation in our region, we are gaining insight by working alongside our partners, NCTD and the City of Carlsbad, to support similar flexible fleet pilot programs in the future.”