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SANDAG also recently approved an $8 million transit pilot program providing free fares for those 18 years old and under, directing $5.3 million to San Diego Metropolitan Transit System and $700,000 to North County Transit District. File photo
SANDAG also recently approved an $8 million transit pilot program providing free fares for those 18 years old and under, directing $5.3 million to San Diego Metropolitan Transit System and $700,000 to North County Transit District. File photo
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Questions raised over SANDAG’s proposed mileage fees, tax increases

REGION — Free transit for all.

This may actually happen thanks to a per-mile fee of two cents for drivers, which has many San Diego County residents pushing back in one of the highest taxed states in the country.

The proposal is the San Diego Association of Governments’ 2021 Regional Plan, otherwise known as 5 Big Moves, which comes with a $172 billion starting price tag (up from $165 billion), all of which was discussed during the SANDAG board of directors Oct. 29 meeting.

The regional agency also released a forecasted budget of $265 billion for 2050, which projects increases in the cost of labor and materials along with inflation. SANDAG reps told The Coast News the final plan and budget will be released by the end of the month.

The goal is to push people and commuters toward public transit and increase ridership by at least 7% to help the county reach its climate goals. According to SANDAG staff, the plan would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20%.

As for the per-mile fee, also known as a road user charge or vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fee, the Democrat-controlled SANDAG board and Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata are lobbying for implementation by 2030 to make up for decreasing gas taxes due to the influx of electric vehicles.

SANDAG plans to launch a VMT study at two cents per mile, along with collection options, while the state is currently studying how to implement such a program. But some residents are worried about levying more fees and tax increases along with possible surveillance operations to track how and where people drive.

“The VMT was only introduced to the public over the last several days in the media,” said Nina Babiarz, who sits on the board of the San Diego-based non-profit Public Watchdogs. “It converts every private vehicle into a tracking device. What are the penalties if a citizen does not put in a tracking device? What software? Who collects the data? Will it be sold for additional revenue generation?”

The board is also proposing two half-cent tax increases in 2022 and 2028, although those must go to the voters for approval. When questioned about the ballot measure language from Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall, Ikhrata said the board hasn’t provided direction but several outside interests are already pursuing a ballot measure, adding that he “welcomes the help.”

Those “outside interests” are local labor unions, two out-of-state design firms and environmental groups.

Hall said for the previous tax proposal in 2016, known as TransNet 2 (which ultimately failed after an accounting error led to an overestimation of tax revenue), SANDAG worked on the ballot measure for at least one year prior to the election. Currently, SANDAG workers are not working on any ballot language.

The San Diego Union Carpenters Local 619, LiUNA Local 89, Southwest Council of Carpenters, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union Local 569, Kansas City, Missouri-based design firms HNTB and Boulder, Colorado-based Flatiron are leading the push for the tax, along with the Environmental Health Coalition and Climate Action Campaign.

A citizens initiative requires a 50%-plus 1 vote to pass, whereas if SANDAG put the measure on the ballot, it would require a two-thirds vote for approval.

The SANDAG board approved a project labor agreement for the 5 Big Moves, which gives unions nearly no competition in bidding for projects. Also, those agreements typically come with an additional 20% increase in project costs, Hall said, although those increases are usually not used for wages or price increases.

Hall said it doesn’t appear SANDAG staff has accounted for additional future costs such as increases in inflation, materials, supplies and labor, which could add on billions more to the budget.

San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones asked if any SANDAG employee, along with any board members, have been in contact with the unions or other special interest groups about the ballot measure. Ikhrata said no staff members have been in discussions with those groups. None of the board members responded to Jones’ question.

Jones also railed against a proposal for adding 819 “managed lanes,” which are toll roads that would include state Route 78, Interstate 5, I-15,  U.S. 805, and others.

“The hostility and complete ignoring of our transportation needs sadden me,” Jones said. “Voices of many in our communities are being left out. Makes me sad to see how many of these upgrades are being addressed in San Diego, but North County and East County are being left out. It’s not equitable.”

The plan must address supplementing at least $18 billion in passenger fares as outlined in SANDAG’s funding plan. The removal of $18 billion in passenger fares would leave SANDAG with a funding gap as it would eliminate a funding source without an equal replacement.

However, those supporting free transit for all did not expand on how SANDAG would recoup the lost fares or how eliminating the money from the 5 Big Moves plan would impact costs on residents going forward.

Proponents of the per-mile fee said it will replace the gas tax, although supporters on the SANDAG board or Ikhrata did not disclose when or how gas taxes would be repealed or removed.

They said the adoption of more electrical vehicle owners on roads and highways must “pay their fair share,” although opponents said it’s an additional fee and will negatively impact lower-income residents who can’t afford EVs, live in East County or must drive for work.

“There are a lot of concerns, are you going to track, but as technology evolves, we’ll get answers,” Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas said. “The future doesn’t look good if we don’t get a handle on climate.”