Two years before the San Diego Association of Governments released a long-term transportation plan counting on raising $60 billion from local drivers by charging them four cents for every mile they drove over the next 25 years, former County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar wrote an op-ed attacking the idea.
“SANDAG’s ‘Track and Tax’ Plan is Not What the Voters Signed Up For,” she wrote for the Encinitas Current.
From then until last week, conservatives led opposition to the idea – from Gaspar, County Supervisor Jim Desmond and San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones to media like KUSI and talk show host Carl DeMaio.
At the last minute, though, the progressive leaders at SANDAG who have the votes to call the shots at the agency joined them. Mayor Todd Gloria announced, a week before the final vote, that he heard his constituents’ concerns and agree it was a bad idea for San Diego. Jones was dismayed.
“Wow, I’m shocked by these comments,” she said. “For two years, we’ve been talking about this, and it has always been, ‘Oh, yes, we love the funding. The funding is perfect. We’re going along with the funding.’ Though many board members, including myself, repeatedly said road user charges are not OK. They’re not acceptable.”
That conservative opposition acted as a shield for SANDAG as it pushed the proposal. Instead of defending the controversial idea on its merits, the agency and its supporters could instead marginalize the idea’s opponents.
Colin Parent, a Democratic councilman in La Mesa who also runs the housing and transportation-focused think tank Circulate San Diego, had instead criticized the road usage charge on technocratic grounds.
The agency is adopting an outline for the next 30 years of transportation in the region. It’s an every-four-year process that counts the money the region expects to bring in – from local taxes or revenue handed down from the state or the federal government – and spells out all the highways and transit lines it expects to need.
The road usage charge, Parent argued in a Circulate San Diego report, was a misguided endeavor because the agency lacked the legal authority to impose it. The state is exploring ways to adopt such a policy, but it hasn’t done so yet and would need to pass legislation to make it possible. And with the amount of money the agency expected to collect from it, he said, many of the other elements of the plan would be imperiled if the state didn’t take those steps, for one reason or another.
In an interview, he said that always made the fee inherently different than the other revenue sources, like local sales tax increases, that the agency had to assume would eventually come to pass.
“The idea that there will be a new kind of fee that isn’t currently permitted seems like a reasonable possibility, sure,” he said. “There’s also a fee for parking in the plan that has never come to pass, but they still put it in there because the agency thinks it will eventually happen. It’s not totally implausible to have the fee in the plan – but it’s also true that unlike a sales tax ballot measure, there’s no legal authority to do it, and unlike a ballot measure there’s no historic precedent for having done it – either locally or elsewhere.”
The problem with that, he said, is it undermines the purpose of the exercise in the first place. The state and federal governments ask regions to prepare these plans within reasonable financial constraints specifically to make them weigh their priorities and make difficult decisions, Parent said.
“That can allow the agency to plan for projects it’ll never be able to pay for, which is bad,” he said.
In the controversy over the plan, there are, however, lots of other revenue expectations that might have otherwise generated some scrutiny.
On the eve of the vote, we thought we’d isolate a few:
- Sales tax increases: SANDAG now expects local voters to approve three sales-tax increases within the next decade: 2022, 2024 and 2028. The agency thinks it’ll collect $21.6 billion through countywide sales taxes approved by voters in 2022 and 2028. It thinks the Metropolitan Transit System will put up, and voters will approve, a ballot measure in 2026, bringing in $6.1 billion.
County voters approved TransNet, the region’s existing transportation tax, in 1987. When it was set to expire, they extended it in 2004. Since then, voters were asked once, in 2016, to approve a new tax measure, which they rejected. MTS pursued a ballot measure in 2020, but abandoned it. SANDAG now says the county will approve more sales tax measures in the next nine years than it has in the previous 34.
- Ride-hailing fees: SANDAG thinks it will start charging per-trip fees for companies like Uber and Lyft ($1.25 for single riders, 65 cents for carpools), bringing in another $1.3 billion and discouraging the emissions-intensive rides.
- Managed Lanes: One of the elements of SANDAG’s plan is a vast expansion of the region’s “managed lane” system on highways. That’s the system in place now on Interstate 15, which attempts to manage congestion throughout the day by charging tolls for special lanes also available to buses.
The new plan calls for 819 new miles of managed lanes between now and 2050, both from converting existing general lanes into the system and by expanding freeways to accommodate them (rather than expanding freeways for general purpose travel, a practice SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata decried since coming to town).
“If accomplished, this would be an unprecedented change of highway usage in California,” reads Circulate San Diego’s report on the regional plan.
SANDAG expects to collect $19.2 billion from the managed lane network – roughly the same amount of money it had anticipated coming from the road usage charge.