A proposal by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) to institute a 4 cent per mile tax on all drivers by 2030 will be brought forward at a special public meeting on Friday.
Governmental leaders across California, as well as in other states such as Utah and Oregon, have been looking at how to replace the gas tax in the coming decades due to gas-powered cars and other vehicles likely to become far fewer in number. With electric and hybrid cars expected to be the main vehicles on the road, and fuel efficiency already cutting into gas tax revenues by around 75 miles a tank per vehicle in the last few years, a by mile road charge has been proposed to keep funds up to pay for road and infrastructure costs that has been paid for by the gas tax for decades.
At the state level, California has been testing charging around 2 cents per mile in pilot programs, but has run into numerous issues. Most notably, the state has experienced difficulty in how to report by-mile-usage, with people failing to self-report odometer readings, transponders leading to privacy issues, concerns mounting on if mileage should be calculated when driving out-of-state, and numerous other concerns.
However, the pilot program was extended to 2027 last month through the passage of SB 339, with a goal to institute the plan by 2030 – well before the scheduled phase-out of selling new gas-powered vehicles in 2035.
In San Diego, the concern is less on road costs and more on how to fund a 30-year, $160 billion regional plan that would include things such as free public transportation and a 200 mile regional rail network costing upwards of $43 billion.
The largest part of funding SANDAG’s plan would come through charging 4 cents per mile on city roadways, which would contribute around $34 billion by 2050 should the mileage plan be instituted in the city in 2030.
“It’s probably looking more like 2030, so we’ll be making that adjustment in the final plan,” noted SANDAG Chief Economist Ray Major earlier this year.
Although SANDAG hopes to test the program soon with San Diegans 18 and younger, multiple county agencies still need to approve it. San Diego would also need to get past the hurdles plaguing the statewide program, most notably, finding a reliable way to calculate mileage. SANDAG has also had to combat early public outrage at paying so much for public transportation and so little for roadways and car drivers.
“There’s a lot going toward roadways here,” said SANDAG regional planning Director Coleen Clementson earlier this year. “It’s not an all-transit plan by any means.”
Many questions, concerns over by-mile driving fees
However, much of the regional plan is still up in the air, as funding continues to be an issue at SANDAG, with the Transnet sales tax bringing in under $20 billion over 40 years, and proposed sales tax increases bringing in $17 billion over the next 30 years still needing voter approval.
Nonetheless, SANDAG is going ahead with a public meeting on Friday to discuss the mileage tax plan. Experts say that while some sort of mileage plan will take the place of the gas tax in the next few decades at the state level, many remain unsure on if local mileage taxes will work.
“Right now, as states like Utah have found out, there are a lot of ways around reporting mileage,” said Washington-based transit planner Francis Conner to the Globe on Friday. “Congestion charge systems, like in London, have seen a lot of people slip by through various means too. There’s just no real reliable way to measure usage in a smaller area.”
“The four cent per mile fee would also negatively affect companies and people that rely on a lot of driving that public transit could not handle, like going to more remote areas, carrying equipment, carrying larger grocery or shopping purchases, and so much more. You’re basically looking at taxing people who want or need to live in more rural areas more.”
“And it’s not just California – most states are looking into something like this. And San Diego trying to do this to fund a plan that should really go to the taxpayers vote is really going under the radar. The last thing they want is to get comparison to the current high-speed rail project there that has gone so high in cost in recent years.
“I don’t think SANDAG is going about this right. We do need a gas tax replacement. Electric and hybrid cars need to pay their fair share for road usage and repair too. But that’s the state level. They just want to charge people way more. The Department of Transportation has found that the average driver drives 13,500 miles a year. That’s an extra $540 a year. That’s not nothing for a family barely ends meet. That’s a car payment or two a year.
“And this is all going to come up at the meeting.”
SANDAG’s public meeting is to be held on Friday.