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SANDAG road user charge: SANDAG is the only metropolitan planning agency in California with a local road-user charge in place.
SANDAG is the only metropolitan planning agency in California with a local road-user charge in place. Courtesy photo
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State approves SANDAG transportation plan with road user charge

CARLSBAD — The California Air Resources Board approved SANDAG’s controversial $172 billion Regional Transportation Plan on Aug. 26, with the contentious road user charge in place as an integral funding mechanism. 

Officials with SANDAG, the only metropolitan planning agency in the state with a local road-user charge, were thrilled the plan won the state air quality agency’s approval.

“SANDAG is pleased that the California Air Resources Board has certified the 2021 Regional Plan and confirmed it is compliant with state laws, regulations, and guidelines,” SANDAG Deputy CEO Coleen Clementson said in a statement. “This allows for hundreds of millions of dollars to flow to our region to help fund important projects, such as the Youth Opportunity Pass Pilot program, LOSSAN Rail Realignment, Otay Mesa East Port of Entry, high-speed transit to the San Diego International Airport, and other important investments that will serve our region for generations to come.”

A countywide pilot program for the road-user charge could launch in roughly four years.

Hassan Ikhrata, CEO of SANDAG, and Clementson informed the California Air Resources Board that the per-mile charge would remain in the plan despite the SANDAG board twice directing staff to return a plan without it

“The Road Usage Charge (RUC) remains in the 2021 Regional Plan, and the 2021 Regional Plan remains a foundation for all future plans,” Ikhrata said in a response letter to CARB. “In short, we are committed to implementing our plan, which is used as an example for the nation on how to develop a transportation system to move people and goods while reducing GHG and addressing social equity in a meaningful way.”

State air quality agency officials asked SANDAG in a response letter how the planning agency plans to address the seemingly opposing actions — how will it implement the per-mile charge while working on removing it as directed by the board?

“…We still have several fundamental questions regarding how SANDAG intends to execute the Board’s direction to update the plan (without the road-user charge) and the extent to which SANDAG will move forward with the (road-user charge) as currently articulated.”

SANDAG road user charge: Passengers board the train on July 18 at the Carlsbad Poinsettia Coaster Station. Photo by Steve Puterski
Passengers board the train on July 18 at the Carlsbad Poinsettia Coaster Station. Photo by Steve Puterski

In an Aug. 19 letter, CARB officials also asked Ikhrata, “Please describe how, if at all, the revenue estimates in the (Regional Transportation Plan) are expected to change as a result of the board direction (to remove the road user charge).”

Ikhrata responded by saying the “board action does not change the revenue estimates in the 2021 Regional Plan because the (road-user charge) was not removed from the approved plan.”

Further opposition

A letter from opponents of the transportation plan, precisely the road-user charge, has pushed the agency into a challenging position.

The July letter from six elected officials — mayors Richard Bailey (Coronado), Matt Hall (Carlsbad), Rebecca Jones (San Marcos), Bill Wells (El Cajon), Julie Ritter (Vista) and County Supervisor Jim Desmond — was sent to the California Air Resources Board, outlining their concerns with a lack of transparency over the plan’s funding mechanisms.

“We are fundamentally opposed to charging San Diegans a per-mile tax to drive their vehicles, and we believe the 2021 Plan and the included funding mechanisms are not based in reality,” the letter reads. “This plan was flawed from the start, not consensus-based and does not meet the needs of the whole San Diego region, especially in the outlying communities of our County.”

Board members have long said reducing people’s ability to move freely — especially for low-income individuals looking to climb the job ladder for higher wages — will negatively impact the region and its working residents.

In December 2021, economist Ray Major, SANDAG’s deputy chief operating officer, also confirmed the road user charge would be added to existing costs to drivers, such as the gas tax.

“It’s primarily to tax you and get you into public transportation,” Desmond told Fox 5 on Aug. 25. “It cannot expand the footprint of any freeway. I’d like to see a plan that embraces the technology of the future … with autonomous vehicles and put technology into our roads so we can use them more efficiently. We need transit, but we also need to take care of the roads and infrastructure for the people it just doesn’t work for.”

Opponents of the mileage charge noted how San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, vice chairman of the SANDAG board, has spoken publicly against the road-user charge after initially voicing support for the controversial fee with mayors Catherine Blakespear (Encinitas) and Alejandra Sotelo-Solis (National City).

In an eleventh-hour reversal, Gloria, Blakespear and Sotelo-Solis all came out against the charge in December 2021, just days before the board approved the plan with the controversial mileage fee. 

SANDAG board is divided over a controversial road user charge
The SANDAG board is divided over a controversial road user charge. Photo by Steve Puterski

SANDAG is moving forward with the road-user charge despite a similar statewide mileage charge coming down the chute, said Jennifer Gress, division chief of the California Air Resources Board. She acknowledged “equity” challenges for low-income commuting residents with such a charge.

According to Gress, SANDAG will begin two studies on the county’s road-user charge later this year, examining how to implement those new fees best.

“We understand they will be studying a range of options,” Gress said of the mileage charge.

Funding challenges

The controversial transportation plan was approved in December 2021, along with funding mechanisms, such as the road-user charge and three half-cent tax increases (one of which is only for residents of the city of San Diego).

But if SANDAG removes the road user charge, the plan could face a funding challenge.

According to the plan, the SANDAG board will allow Caltrans to assume ownership of state Route 125, forfeiting up to $2 billion in toll revenue as a funding source for the transportation plan.

Earlier this year, the SANDAG board majority supported “free transit for all.” If the board approves universal free transit, up to $21 billion in potential revenue — passenger fares from North County Transit District and San Diego Metropolitan Transit System — would be eliminated. 

Lastly, in June, Let’s Go, San Diego, a coalition of special interests, failed to obtain enough signatures to get a half-cent tax measure on the November ballot, a proposal estimated to raise $10 billion for the plan. The group, comprised of labor unions, environmental groups and at least one paid SANDAG consultant, recently announced it would bring back the tax initiative next year.

A new plan?

During a July 8 board meeting, Antoinette Meier, SANDAG’s regional planning director, said the agency would return with an alternate plan by spring next year. 

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 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 charge in place. 

However, Meier cited data from 2016 and earlier for commercial uses, prompting several board members to criticize staff for failing to incorporate post-pandemic behavior, such as telecommuting, into its analysis.

Jones, mayor of San Marcos, said SANDAG has never analyzed other options to decrease GHGs without a road-user charge.

Bailey of Coronado put things more bluntly: “Hasan is either lying to the board or lying to the CARB. It’s one or the other. The SANDAG board has been adamant multiple times that we are against the road-user charge. (Ikrata) is not executing board policy.”