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A view of traffic along Interstate 8 in Mission Valley. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

You’ve probably seen the headlines. The San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, is a regional transportation agency that’s preparing to vote Friday on a critical blueprint for transit, roads, and highways over the next several decades.

Rather than focusing on trains and buses, however, local politicians are howling about “road usage fees” that might be tapped to fund the plan. The outrage machine is running at full speed, as evidenced by the stream of angry and profanity-laced comments reproduced at the end of the SANDAG Board’s Friday agenda.

A road usage fee isn’t such a radical idea. Fundamentally, it’s just a way for people to help pay for the infrastructure they use to get around. The concept is simple: people who use the roads could be charged a nominal fee based on the miles they drive. Using new, individualized transponder technology, road usage fees could be implemented flexibly, in a way that lessens burdens on seniors and those with low incomes, while ensuring that drivers who can afford it pay their fair share toward upkeep of the infrastructure they use.

We’ve been paying to keep our roads in working order through gasoline and sales taxes for a long time. But though they’re familiar, gasoline and sales taxes are far from perfect. They tend to hit low-income people the hardest, and they can’t be targeted to lessen the burden on those most in need or focus on those most able to pay.

Gasoline tax revenues are also declining as people shift to lower-emission electric and hybrid vehicles. In some ways this is a good sign, as we need to move away from gas-powered automobiles as quickly as possible.

But all vehicles create wear and tear on the roads, no matter what comes out of their tailpipes. Relying on gas taxes to maintain roads means the mostly higher-income drivers of new electric and hybrid cars are literally getting a free ride, while lower-income drivers are increasingly stuck with the whole bill.

That isn’t fair. Nor is it sustainable. That’s why many people are looking to road usage fees as a more equitable and effective alternative to gas taxes.

The outrage over road usage fees is off base. These fees are only part of the regional transportation planning picture. Other federal, state, and local funding will still be critical for maintaining our transportation infrastructure. And they won’t kick in anytime soon—SANDAG is currently targeting 2030 for implementation, and the state Legislature will need to pass new laws before the fees can take effect.

Like so many debates these days, this one has quickly become more incendiary than intelligent. Unfortunately, distractions like this could jeopardize the region’s ability to plan transportation for a sustainable and equitable future.

San Diego faces a triple emergency: a climate crisis, a housing crisis, and an ecological crisis all at once. We need to change the way we’ve done things in this county, and we need to do it now.

We need affordable housing, close to employment centers, with public transit and active transportation options that work for all. SANDAG already projects that most future housing growth will be in denser urban areas, not the backcountry. Building housing in already dense urban areas can help us deal with the triple crises we face by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and lowering transportation costs while preserving wildlands and watersheds.

But we need to invest in the transit infrastructure necessary to support that new housing. And we need to find fair, equitable, and effective ways to pay for that investment.

My organization has had its differences with SANDAG. We took the agency all the way to the California Supreme Court over its 2011 transportation plan, which would have driven climate pollution upward, despite clear science telling us we need to make dramatic reductions.

Though SANDAG has made major strides in the last 10 years, we still think the current plan doesn’t go far enough or move fast enough in supporting affordable urban housing with effective public transit, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure. We’ll keep pushing the agency to do more and to do better. That’s what our current emergency demands.

And that’s why we can’t get distracted by this manufactured shouting match over road usage fees. The SANDAG Board shouldn’t let itself get distracted either.

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