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This post originally published in the July 9 Politics Report. The weekly newsletter is available to Voice of San Diego members only. Click here to join.
The San Diego Association of Government’s board is well positioned to continue fighting well into the future over whether the region should charge drivers for every mile they drive.
The board voted Friday to direct staff to draw up a path for removing the driving fee from the region’s long-term transportation plan, while making sure the plan still complies with state environmental laws requiring reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Staff said they expect that proposal to come back to the board sometime next spring.
The vote was nearly identical to one the board already took in December, telling the agency’s planners to draw up a way to eliminate the driving fee, which had become a source of significant controversy after conservative board members criticized its inclusion in the regional plan. Now, seven months later, board reiterated that they did, in fact, want staff to come up with a way to remove the fee and maintain a legal transportation blueprint.
“I appreciate the recognition that we’ve been waiting for some time,” said Mayor Todd Gloria, who led the charge in December to begin the process of killing the fee, just days before the board was set to approve a plan that included it. “I would be open about my frustration for how long this takes.”
SANDAG staff and Hasan Ikhrata, the agency’s executive director, also gave conflicting answers on when the board could, officially, excise the fee from the region’s outline of all the infrastructure projects it wants to build in the coming decades and how it will pay for them.
The staff’s presentation, for instance, says that they could come back to the board in spring 2023 with options to remove the fee, while replacing the lost revenue and compensating for the greenhouse gas emissions reductions that would only occur if the fee were in place.
But the same presentation also included a visualization of the timeline that suggested removing the fee would trigger public outreach and environmental reviews that could stretch until 2025. Staff even indicated that, owing to that timeline, the agency could simply remove the fee as part of its next state-mandated blueprint, due in 2025.
“We have on the screen, the deadline you see goes all the way to 2025, but that does not mean the update is going to wait that long,” Ikhrata said.
“Based on the action today, we will make a change to the 2021 plan – when that happens and if it coincides with the 2025 plan, that’s a decision for you to make later,” Ikhrata also said, after staff had emphasized that a change to the plan would come back to the board in 2023.
Patching up the plan: Taking the fee out of the plan creates two related problems for the agency. It deprives the region of revenue that the plan is counting on to build all of the projects it envisions, and it deprives the region of emissions reductions that it needs to demonstrate to make good on state requirements.
With the fee, San Diego would cut emissions 20.4 percent from 2005 levels by 2035, while without it regional emissions would fall by just 18.6 percent – below the state’s mandate for a 19.1 percent reduction.
But now that it’s updating things, SANDAG staff said it’ll have to go ahead and update the costs in the plan to reflect inflation. So with revenues down and costs up, staff said it expects to eliminate or scale back some of the road, highway, bus and rail projects that are in the plan.
There may have also been some foreshadowing of how the agency can get back some of the emissions reductions it’ll lose when it pulls out the fee. The agency’s current model is based on from 2016. Staff will now use fresh numbers based on behavior after the pandemic.
The state’s approval: In December, SANDAG approved a new plan, then minutes later passed a motion promising to change the plan. Then the agency submitted the plan it approved to the California Air Resources Board for certification that it meets environmental requirements.
CARB is poised to sign off on that plan by the end of the month, said Antoinette Meier, the agency’s director of regional planning. She indicated that the pending approval is why the agency is just now getting started on the change that the board directed on the same day it approved the plan it wants to change.
“We have been waiting for state approval of the (regional plan) before beginning conversations about updating the (regional plan),” she said. “We did not want to compromise that approval and we did not want to put funding at risk.
That caught the attention of San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones, who asked whether the state was aware that SANDAG was promising to change the plan that it was just about to certify.
“I don’t see anything misleading here,” Ikhrata said, arguing that they had submitted a legal plan to CARB for approval, and if they made changes to it after it was approved, those too would go to CARB for approval.
What’s at stake: The regional plan, importantly, does not actually impose a driving fee. It can’t do that. It says that the region, as a whole, assumes that it will implement a fee by 2030, and uses the money it would generate to account for all the stuff it wants to build. But the state would still need to make such a fee legal, some sort of technological solution to charge drivers for their driving would need to be selected and deployed, and the agency’s board or voters would eventually need to actually implement the fee. It’s enough to wonder why regional officials have spent so much time fighting over what amounts to a hypothetical.
“It’s true that the regional plan does not have taxing authority, but you can only include projects in your plan that have a reasonable chance to be funded,” Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey, a leading opponent of the fee, told us in an interview. “And the regional plan calls for a lot of projects to be funded based on this fee and other taxes. So even though SANDAG does not levy a tax through the regional plan, just by planning to have all of these things included, it necessitates them coming to fruition. The plan does not impose a tax, but included them creates a plan that then requires taxation.”
The other lost revenue: Pending a surprising reveal any day now, the agency has also already lost another major revenue source it was counting on: a sales tax that it thought voters would approve in November. By next spring then, when the change comes back to the board, the loss or delay of that money would also presumably need to be included.
“…staff said it expects to eliminate or scale back some of the road, highway, bus and rail projects that are in the plan.”
Undoubtedly, in that very order; road projects to be eliminated first, then highway, bus, and finally, rail.
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