The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) board decided Friday to put an end to the idea of imposing a road usage fee, or vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax, any time soon.
The board voted overwhelmingly to permanently remove it from the latest iteration of the “regional transportation plan” and ordered staff to do nothing to promote the idea at any legislative level.
That regional transportation plan will now be stripped of the VMT – which involved a charge of 3.3 cents per mile – that was expected to generate billions of dollars each year, money that for the most part would have been spent on transit initiatives.
SANDAG is what is known as an MPO, or metropolitan planning organization, of which there are dozens scattered around population centers across the country. MPOs are run by boards made up of local elected officials and set regional transportation priorities and act as a conduit for federal funding (they were originally created to force big cities to share fed money with their neighboring communities and suburbs.)
Unlike most other MPOs – such as the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) that covers most of the rest of southern California – SANDAG not only plans transportation projects but actually builds them, and in the case of mass transit, operates them, too, giving it an enormous amount of power in San Diego County.
Briefly, a VMT is a direct tax on driving instead (theoretically, very theoretically) of the gas taxes currently paid at the pump. This would involve – almost certainly – an intrusive method to track the vehicle at all times to determine the taxes owed.
While SANDAG had contemplated a simple mile by mile tax, VMT’s have multiple potential permutations, from simply charging a flat rate per mile driven to modifying the rate depending upon when the car is driven (higher for rush hour, for example,) to charging more based on where the car is driven (known as cordon pricing) or even how much the driver earns in a year – for a detailed breakdown of the possibilities, see here.
Besides raising money, VMTs are a staple of efforts to encourage people to live in higher density neighborhoods, drive less, and use public transit. These are, in part, the aims of a pilot VMT program expected to be rolled out in Los Angeles County in about two years.
Friday, members of the public decried the concept as being antithetical to the freedom of movement that American cherish and board members noted how deeply unpopular the concept is, both because of the fee and because of the inherent invasion of privacy involved.
Local officials have already faced intense public pressure over the idea, with even some normally “progressive” electeds shying away at times.
Another reason the idea is detested by local officials is the fact that they are the people who must enact and enforce the concept, putting their political careers in jeopardy. The SANDAG plan that originally contained the VMT was in part a response to ever-tightening CalTrans regulations and strictures, regulations put in place by legislators who cannot realistically be politically punished.
In other words, Sacramento pols are telling locals what hill to die on and local officials – most of whom already loathe the concept – do not appreciate that.
The death of the VMT comes only two months after the tax’s biggest booster – SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata – announced his resignation.
While LA Metro will most likely plow ahead with its pilot program, SANDAG’s decision to axe the idea should be seen as a victory for common sense and personal privacy rights.