San Diego County Looks for Alternatives to Mileage Tax

By City News Service
City News Service
City News Service
December 3, 2021 Updated: December 3, 2021

SAN DIEGO—Some board members of the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) on Dec. 3 are looking for alternatives—instead of charging county residents for every mile they drive—to fund the county’s regional transportation plan.

The four-cents-per-mile road usage tax proposal—and two half-cent regional sales taxes proposed for 2022 and 2028—was envisioned as a way to help fund SANDAG’s long-term regional plan.

This ambitious 30-year, $160 billion plan could include no-cost public transit and a 200-mile, $43 billion regional rail network.

Some of the most powerful members of the SANDAG board, which weighs votes by a city’s population, said they were uncomfortable with the details of such a tax.

“At this time, the local road usage charge as a replacement for the gas tax remains highly speculative, with very few details available about how it would work or be applied in a fair way,” said Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, chair of SANDAG’s Board of Directors.

“I am concerned that the road usage charge could saddle residents with large and unsustainable cost increases for their basic transportation needs before substantial improvements in public transit have made transit a viable choice for most trips,” Blakespear said.

The transportation plan is going before the board for final approval on Dec. 10, but the late split from some of the board’s leadership leaves it unclear how the regional transportation agency will respond.

According to state law, the transportation plan needs to be adopted by year’s end and must demonstrate plans to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“I have long supported SANDAG’s Regional Transportation Plan, as it aligns with my vision of giving San Diegans more sustainable ways to get around our region,” said San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, vice chair of the board and the member with the most heavily-weighted vote. “However, the inclusion of a road usage charge is unnecessary, and we will be asking SANDAG staff to find alternative funding sources.

“While I understand the principles behind a road usage charge, our region has not done nearly enough to expand access to public transit,” Gloria said. “Residents must have feasible and accessible transportation alternatives other than a car for a road usage charge to be effective.”

Carl DeMaio, San Diego city councilman turned conservative radio host, said Gloria and other members of the Democratic-leaning board were to blame. He is also chairman of political action group Reform California, which often focuses on issues important to the state’s conservative movement.

“Gloria can say he will remove the mileage tax at a future date, but he has shown time and time again to be completely untrustworthy and dishonest when it comes to tax hikes,” DeMaio said. “We have no doubt he and his cohorts will impose a mileage tax after the November 2022 election.”

SANDAG received more than 1,500 comments on the draft 2021 Regional Plan. Some were positive, but many were critical of the agency’s proposed tax increases.

San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond said the proposal was intended to “force everyone onto trolleys and buses” by pricing people out of their cars.

National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis, second vice chair of SANDAG’s board, said she was concerned with the proposed tax’s impact on equity for working-class communities.

“It is essential that we work to have a plan that takes all funding options into account and doesn’t cause concern,” Sotelo-Solis said. “We need to capitalize on the opportunity for leveraging federal-level funding, and at the end of the day, we must have tools in the toolbox that strengthen and implement our equity statement and board core values.”

California has been testing charging around two cents per mile in pilot programs but has run into several issues. The state has experienced difficulty in how to report the by-mile usage. Also, whether miles should count when out of state is unclear. It is still up in the air how SANDAG would circumvent that issue, but the agency wants to wait until some mass transit projects are completed.

The proposed mileage tax is intended to supplement and eventually replace gas taxes, which have dropped considerably due to dropping gas mileage and exponentially growing ownership of hybrid and electric cars in recent years.

According to a 2020 report by the think tank Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, between 1993 and 2020, average fuel efficiency improved by around 26 percent, which translates to drivers traveling an extra 75 miles per tank on average.

“Those 75 extra miles of driving are generating wear and tear on the nation’s roads, without requiring any offsetting gas tax payment to cover the cost,” the report found.

SANDAG has estimated the plan could raise more than $34 billion through 2050, but the agency’s chief economist, Ray Major, said the final figures would change once the scope was narrowed to implementation of the proposal in 2030.

To learn more about SANDAG’s regional plan, please visit sdforward.com.