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The funding mechanisms for SANDAG's proposed regional transit overhaul have come under fire as the plan proposes charging drivers per mile on top of gas taxes. Courtesy photo
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Vista formally opposes mileage tax from SANDAG proposal

VISTA — The Vista City Council approved a resolution opposing the San Diego Association of Governments’ proposed vehicle-miles-traveled tax during its Nov. 9 meeting.

Councilman John Franklin brought the item forward after responding to numerous complaints from residents, in addition to concerns that the SANDAG board of directors has provided vague answers, or no response at all, to a number of questions regarding a number of elements within its proposed regional transit overhaul.

The Escondido City Council likewise recently adopted a resolution opposing the plan.

SANDAG last year unveiled its 5 Big Moves, also known as the 2021 Regional Plan, calling for a $172 billion investment in public transit. Some of the goals in SANDAG’s regional plan are to increase ridership to 10% of residents and cut greenhouse emissions by 20% to meet state mandates in 2030 and beyond. Currently, ridership from the North County Transit District and the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System is between 2%-3%.

But the agency’s funding mechanisms have come under fire, specifically charging drivers per mile in addition to gasoline taxes, adding managed lanes (toll roads), scrapping highway projects along state Route 78 and Interstate 5 and I-15, and suggesting two voter-approved tax increases in 2022 and 2028, which were discussed during SANDAG’s Oct. 29 meeting.

The vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax is 2 cents per mile, but the state is also studying a similar tax, which would also be 2 cents per mile. In addition, the Biden administration, through the Build Back Better infrastructure bill, would also include a voluntary vehicle mileage fee program to study the issue. No cost is detailed in the bill.

Franklin, along with Mayor Judy Ritter, the city’s SANDAG representative, and Councilman Joe Green, supported the resolution and railed against the lack of disclosure from SANDAG regarding a number of questions, including: Will the gas tax be repealed or altered so electric vehicle motorists pay a VMT and those in traditional vehicles continue with the gas tax? Is it worth it to have 90% of residents subsidizing just 10% of transit riders? And how will the plan impact low-income residents who often have to drive long distances to work?

All the council members recognize electric vehicle owners must pay “their fair share” to maintain roads and highways. However, Ritter, Franklin and Green don’t support saddling non-EV drivers with an additional tax. Green called it “an undue burden,” especially for lower-income residents.

As for how the miles driven would be tracked, Green, who sits on a SANDAG committee, said it is likely SANDAG could use Bluetooth capabilities, license plate readers or odometer readings submitted to the DMV.

Additionally, Green and Ritter also criticized managed lanes on SR 78, which would include tolls for an HOV lane (requiring three passengers instead of two), congestion pricing and having just one of the three lanes free of charge.

They also questioned how SANDAG would determine the total mileage out of the county, such as those who travel to Mexico, or out of state.

Councilwoman Corrina Contreras, who voted against the resolution, said she could not have a discussion because the council couldn’t answer her questions, no expert from SANDAG was present to comment and she hasn’t read the full plan.

Contreras also said the issue is centered on a difference in political ideology and that has no place in the discussion. She believes the VMT tax could be a relief to some motorists, but she won’t support the resolution without more information.

However, Ritter told Contreras those concerns have been brought up to the SANDAG board but it refused to answer, which is why the council is sending formal opposition to the plan.

“My email is blowing up against it,” Ritter added. “I got one in support. I had so many emails I gave up responding. I worry the VMT is going to hurt people who have to drive the most. People who don’t have money will be hurt the most by this.”

Councilwoman Katie Melendez abstained from the vote but mostly agreed with Contreras’ positions. One of her main concerns was the environmental impacts and without that information, she wasn’t comfortable voting either way on the resolution.