REGION — The San Diego Association of Governments board on July 8 approved plans to update its 2021 Regional Transportation Plan without a controversial road user charge.
The alternative plan is not expected to return to the board for approval until spring 2023.
The road user charge is a proposed per-mile fee for motorists on local highways and several major arterials, according to SANDAG’s plan.
For more than a year, Republican mayors Rebecca Jones (San Marcos), Matt Hall (Carlsbad) and others pushed for the removal of the proposed mileage charge after many called the proposal an attempt to “tax” drivers out of their cars and into public transportation.
The $172 billion regional plan, or 5 Big Moves, primarily focused on transit projects, was initially approved in December 2021 with the controversial road user charge. Democratic mayors Todd Gloria (San Diego), Catherine Blakespear (Encinitas) and Alejandra Sotelo-Solis (National City) and SANDAG staff all claimed the mileage charge was necessary to adopt the plan quickly and avoid missing out on critical state and federal funds.
But in a surprise move, the original proponents of the road-user charge — Gloria, Blakespear and Sotelo-Solis — later flipped their positions to support removal of the charge after public backlash mounted just six months before the June primary.
Current and future analysis
The board’s most recent action to remove the road user charge — and its projected $14 billion revenue haul — requires staff to update the plan and bring it back to the board. Antoinette Meier, SANDAG’s regional planning director, said the agency would return with an alternate plan by spring next year.
“We’ve put together a work plan to make sure the plan is compliant with state and federal law,” Meier said. “The (road user charge) influences travel behavior. Removal of the (road user charge) is considered a substantial change because it impacts a variety of factors, not just (vehicle miles traveled) and (greenhouse gases), but also revenues.”
Meier said staff conducted a comparative analysis of the current plan — with and without the mileage charge — to meet a state-required 19.1% per-capita reduction of greenhouse gases, or GHGs, by 2035. The agency’s findings show an 18.64% reduction in emissions without the road user charge and a 20.4% reduction with the highly-contested road user charge.
“Many elements of the plan have to be updated using the latest data and assumptions,” Meier said. “The model used to create the 2021 Regional Transportation Plan was based on 2016 passenger travel data and older data for commercial travel.”
Several board members have called on staff to use post-pandemic information to gather a more reliable data set. But an update will require a reevaluation of environmental reviews, projects, phasing and financial implications arising from inflation, Meier said.
The current version of the regional transportation plan is awaiting approval from the California Air Resources Board, which is expected to issue a determination later this month.
Six SANDAG board members — Jones, Hall, Richard Bailey (Coronado), Chris Rodriguez (Oceanside), Julie Ritter (Vista) and Supervisor Jim Desmond — sent a joint letter to the state Air Resource Board protesting the current plan, noting SANDAG staff missed its six-month deadline to return the Regional Transportation Plan without a road-user charge.
“We urge (California Air Resources Board) to provide strong direction for SANDAG to pursue an inclusive and collaborative process based on the needs and realities of the entire region, including a more realistic approach to funding,” the letter reads. “Extracting billions of more dollars on the backs of already overextended feepayers and taxpayers of the San Diego region is not an option that works for all of us. We do not support any plan that includes a road user charge.”
Proponents have said the mileage fee is a “replacement” for the statewide gas tax, which can only be increased, decreased or repealed by the California State Legislature.
However, Ray Major, deputy CEO of SANDAG, told The Coast News if the plan was implemented in its current form, combustible-engine vehicles would pay both the road user charge and state gas tax. But Major also noted further studies might create alternatives to avoid a double whammy for motorists.
But even if SANDAG’s road user charge is completely abandoned, state and federal lawmakers are also considering adopting similar mileage fees.
Eliminating a toll road
The board also approved eliminating the debt and toll-only operations on state Route 125, known as the South Bay Expressway, by 2027, according to inewsource. The debt totals $143 million, and ownership of the highway would be transferred to Caltrans.
However, an estimated $1.3 billion (in 2020 dollars) and $1.8 billion (year of expenditure) in toll revenues, plus more from debt financing backed by future tolls, is projected from 2030 as part of the funding mechanisms for the Regional Transportation Plan. In short, the board must now find replacement income to make up for lost toll revenues.
Under the current funding, the 5 Big Moves plan also proposes 819 miles of “managed lanes,” allowing drivers to avoid traffic by paying a fee, which opponents claim are toll roads in disguise.
“These are on top of the fees you’re already paying at the DMV and at the pump,” Supervisor Jim Desmond previously said about the rod user charge and managed lanes. “These regressive taxes are going to hurt the working poor, the most who can’t afford to live next to where they work. Parents can’t hop on a bus to go to the grocery store, orthodontist appointment or take their kid to soccer practice.”
Additionally, there may be another potential budget shortfall, particularly since the board’s majority also wants “free transit for all” by 2030 — a goal that will eliminate at least another $10 billion from the plan’s funding.
In the revenue column, the regional planning agency would collect roughly $21.6 billion from two special tax proposals, according to SANDAG’s financing projections. The tax measures were projected to go to voters in 2022 and again in 2028. A third tax measure by the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) is slated for city of San Diego voters in 2024.
But since SANDAG’s two countywide proposals are special taxes earmarked for a specific purpose, each requires a two-thirds supermajority (66.67%) from voters.
In a move criticized as an attempt to avoid the supermajority vote requirement for a special tax, a coalition of labor unions, environmental groups and engineering businesses started gathering signatures to place a half-cent tax initiative on the November ballot. However, the group failed to gather enough signatures to make the cut.
According to the most recent state court rulings, the vote requirement for a special tax via citizen initiative is a simple majority, or 50% plus a single vote — a considerably lower bar than if a local government or agency such as SANDAG were to place a tax measure on the ballot.