The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) approved a 30-year, $163 billion regional travel plan on Friday, but without the controversial four-cents-per-mile road usage tax being added.
For months, the public has been largely opposed to the per-mile tax, which had been expected to contribute about $34 billion of the $163 billion needed for the plan. Republicans, as well as some Democrats, opposed the per-mile tax because it was not clear how it would be implemented or how it could possibly be tracked. Many also noted the unreliability of similar taxes, and that drivers slipping through the cracks could cost billions in lost taxes.
In particular, Encinitas Mayor and Board Chairwoman Catherine Blakespear and vice chairs San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis all announced that they did not support per-mile tax.
Without full Democratic support, the plan looked doomed to fail earlier this month. Besides the per-mile tax tax, the other parts of the plan had a slight majority of support from SANDAG elected leadership. Besides the per-mile tax, two half-cent sales taxes also included to fund the project had just enough support. This also included the rest of SANDAG’s plan, which proposes 200 more miles of rail lines in the county, a Central Mobility Hub that would link public transportation services to the San Diego County Airport, building a biking and walking network, increasing route frequencies of buses, trolleys, and trains, moving the train tracks from Del Mar Bluffs to a tunnel underneath, and even planning free public transportation for all riders by 2031.
With so much riding on the SANDAG vote, and it’s success largely coming down to the per-mile tax, SANDAG leaders dropped it shortly before the vote on Friday.
Controversial four-cent-per-mile tax dropped, SANDAG plan passes
“This is a visionary plan that needs broad public support to be realized,” said Mayor Blakespear on Friday. “The road-use charge represents one of the long- range options on the table for replacing the gas tax. And while the principles behind such a charge are well-understood, the mechanics of how it would be implemented are not.”
“The fee is unnecessary for the plan to succeed. That is why I asked, together with board leadership, to have it struck from the regional plan, and the board agreed.”
With the tax gone, SANDAG leadership voted for the $163 billion Regional Transportation Plan by a 58% to 42% vote on Friday. Supporters noted that their aim for seeing a decline of car usage in San Diego was more tenable now than ever before, as was their goal of helping reduce climate change and giving low-income people access to public transit options.
“This Regional Plan makes the impossible possible, added Blakespeare. “It’s exciting to be here on the precipice of true change.”
“Today’s vote to approve the greenest transportation plan in our region’s history was nothing short of historic. We are delivering on the vision to transform our transportation system by providing our region with more choices for how to get around. We are also making a tangible difference in efforts to fight climate change and to maximize the road network for greater efficiency.”
Opponents to the plan countered that the plan was simply too big to be passed all at once, had multiple feasibility issues, and, despite pushing for more transit lines, still ignores a large percentage of the population, particularly in North and East County.
“In SANDAG’s Regional Transportation Plan, the only thing regional about it is the financial burden that will be on the back of every county resident,” explained Poway Mayor and former SANDAG Chairman Steve Vaus. “For people living in North or East County, they will be paying the taxes for something they will never use — public transit.”
Others noted a lack of transparency with the public going forward, as well as the high price tag of the project.
“Whether you vote aye or nay, there needs to be a formal, transparent process before coming to the SANDAG board room by which each of you, as representatives of your agencies, collect input from your fellow municipal elected leaders and the constituents you collectively represent,” said San Diego County Taxpayers Association leader Haney Hong to the SANDAG board on Friday. “Without debates at your member agency, there is no assurance that you are not simply voting for your own personal priorities.”
Experts noted that while the plan is ambitious and could serve the city well, the lack of funding for it may cause it to be something of a white elephant akin to the California high-speed rail system.
“Without funding, projects could languish for years, and that means costs cold be bumped up again and again,” said mass transit consultant William Porter to the Globe on Friday. “The per-mile tax was doomed to fail, but they should have had something else be given first to replace that funding and they didn’t. It does not bode well for the future.”
Following the vote on Friday, the SANDAG Board started asking staff to find alternate funding replacements for the slashed per-mile tax.
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