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Moments after voting for the San Diego Association of Government’s long-term transportation plan in December, Mayor Todd Gloria immediately pledged to remove its most controversial element: an assumption that by 2030, the state and region would each charge drivers for every mile they drove.
It was too late to change such a fundamental part of the outline that day – and the agency couldn’t delay final approval on its state-required regional plan to re-do it without the driving fee. Instead, Gloria and SANDAG Board Chair Catherine Blakespear asked the board to tell SANDAG staff to come back in six months with an amendment to the just-passed regional plan that would excise the fee and replace it with something else.
It was a complicated switcheroo because the fee was not just a policy idea some people liked, and others didn’t. It was foundational to the entire document. Without it, the plan doesn’t work. The revenue the driving fee would generate was vital for all the new freeway, road and transit projects the agency would build. And it would discourage driving, helping realize the greenhouse gas emissions reductions every region needs to comply with state environmental laws.
Six months later, SANDAG staff came back, and rather than proposing a way to replace the fee, they instead asked board members if they really meant it when they said they wanted to amend the plan. Yes, the board directed again – go change the plan we just passed to get rid of the driving fee.
It is now official: That’s not happening.
The driving fee is part of SANDAG’s 2021 regional plan, and that’s not changing. Instead, SANDAG will consider the board direction to remove the fee when it passes a new plan, in 2025.
This all came after several conservative SANDAG board members warned the state that with Gloria and Blakespear opposed to the driving fee, SANDAG had no intention of following through on the transportation plan it had submitted as required. Either that or Blakespear and Gloria’s opposition to the driving fee was an empty gesture.
Those board members wrote a letter to the California Air Resources Board, which is responsible for approving SANDAG’s regional plan, and certifying that it complies with a state mandate to cut 19 percent by 2035.
The seven elected officials informed CARB of SANDAG staff’s report at a July 8 meeting that showed removing the road usage charge, SANDAG’s term for the driving fee, would mean the transportation plan no longer complied with SB 375, which set the emissions reduction target.
As they explained to CARB in their letter, SANDAG’s board pushed ahead, approving a motion directing staff to “develop an update to the regional plan to remove the regional road usage charge.”
“We do not support any plan that includes a Road User Charge,” the officials wrote. “Likewise, the Mayor of the City of San Diego, serving as First Vice Chair of the SANDAG Board has publicly spoken out against it.”
Between the board’s second explicit promise to get rid of the driving fee – both times led by Gloria – and the letter from board members reiterating that SANDAG was changing the plan to remove the fee, CARB finally decided to reach out to San Diego to express some concerns with the plan they’re being asked to approve.
But first SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata – who had publicly championed the driving fee for years in the face of mostly conservative opposition prior to Gloria and Blakespear’s move against it – sent CARB a letter.
His letter didn’t say so explicitly, but implied that the agency did not intend to follow through with the board’s direction. The agency’s new budget for the year, he wrote, included expenditures to implement the plan “as adopted,” that is, including the driving fee. He emphasized that the agency was studying “how all proposed pricing strategies” in the plan could be adopted, including the driving fee.
“Pricing strategies include a broad range of opportunities including usage charges (the driving fee), roadway tolling, transportation network company fees and other mechanisms,” Ikhrata wrote, in an Aug. 17 letter.
A day later, though, CARB sent their own letter relaying their concern, over both the board’s directions and the letter from select board members.
“Unfortunately, these events raise significant concerns that the (regional plan) we are evaluating is not the plan SANDAG intends to implement,” wrote Jennifer Gress, chief of CARB’s sustainable transportation and communities division.
Gress wasn’t satisfied with Ikhrata’s subtle nods toward keeping the driving fee, or his plan to “implement the plan as adopted.” All of the concrete responses he provided related to short-term moves, like adopting a budget that included studying the fee, she wrote, but ignored how the agency intended to deal with the board’s direction to get rid of the fee – which happened after adopting the budget, anyway.
Her letter included an attachment with a list of specific questions for the agency – like how the agency plans to comply with the board direction to get rid of the driving fee.
“As SANDAG staff conveyed at the July 8 board meeting, the region will not meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets without the (driving fee),” she wrote. “We at CARB are hard pressed to see how SANDAG could meet the targets without it.”
Finally, in response to those specific questions, SANDAG acknowledged what was becoming increasingly obvious: it has no plans to remove the driving fee from its regional plan. The agency is ignoring the board’s repeated direction to amend the plan.
Instead of amending the 2021 plan as the board directed, SANDAG is just going to start on its next plan, due in 2025, and hope it can find a way to make the greenhouse gas emissions and funding math work without the driving fee by then.
“In order to carry out the July 8, 2022, Board Action, SANDAG is initiating work on our next Regional Plan,” Ikhrata wrote, putting an end to the idea that any amendment was forthcoming.
In an emailed statement, Gloria acknowledged that his move in December, made amid press scrutiny and criticism from conservative board members, to remove the fee from the 2021 plan after voting for the plan that included the fee was dead.
He still opposes the fee, though, he said.
“When we passed the 2021 Regional Plan with the road usage charge, we also voted to direct SANDAG staff to develop alternatives to the usage charge that could still allow our region to achieve the emissions-reductions mandates,” he said. “That work is ongoing. My position on the road usage charge continues to be that I don’t support imposing one until we have adequate transit infrastructure to give people an alternative to incurring the charge.”
Conservative board members who said in December that Gloria’s motion was an empty gesture can take a victory lap – he voted to approve the plan with the driving fee in it, and his attempt to subsequently change the plan to remove it has failed.
That is, to the extent that the driving fee’s inclusion in the plan had more than a bureaucratic or symbolic meaning in the first place.
Even with the driving fee now, officially, staying put, it has a long way to go before it’s implemented.
The 2021 plan envisioned it going into effect in 2030. Before that happened, SANDAG was always going to pass two new long-term transportation plans, first in 2025 and then again in 2029. Both of those were always going to have a better sense of how realistic that was (and now, the 2025 plan might not include it at all).
But the San Diego region also couldn’t implement anything before the state did, anyway. The state’s top transportation official acknowledged to Voice last month that 2030 was an ambitious timeline for that switch at the state level, and wouldn’t commit to it being realistic. And even after the state makes a driving fee legally possible, and settles on a technology to rely on, SANDAG would need to vote specifically to impose the fee.
Nonetheless, back in December, Gloria and SANDAG Board Chair Catherine Blakespear and other like-minded board members celebrated their decision to pass the plan and then to immediately pass a motion promising to remove the fee from the plan they just passed.
That is officially no longer the plan.