A massive transportation plan being ironed out by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) includes a proposed per-mile road usage tax that could hit local drivers by 2030.
The proposal is part of SANDAG's 2021 Regional Plan -- a 30-year, $163 billion dollar plan that takes aim at the future of transportation in the region. The plan includes no-cost public transit and a 200-mile, $43 billion regional rail network. More about the regional plan can be found here.
The agency says transportation tax revenue will go beyond basic road improvements to fund the next generation of transportation infrastructure. The plan highlights "5 Big Moves" that will reshape how the region gets around.
Revenue from the proposed four-cent-per-mile tax would go toward the projects, as would two half-cent regional sales taxes scheduled for 2022 and 2028. The agency is still working to determine a fair rate for the per-mile tax and says there needs to be "adequate and available alternatives to the private automobile in place."
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SANDAG says revenue from the recent gas tax is tapering off due to an increase in more fuel-efficient cars. The mileage tax is supposed to supplement, and eventually replace, that revenue.
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%. That translates to drivers on average traveling an extra 75 miles per tank.
"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.
San Diegan Melinda Schlegal, who drives a gas vehicle, says she understands her contributions to society come in the form of taxes, but wishes there was more of a two-way street.
“I can’t afford an electric car or anything like that, so maybe there can be other measures that help support people’s ability to purchase vehicles that don’t use gas," Schlegal said.
She's also thinking about the future.
“I have a little girl who’s 3 years old and I don’t know exactly what we’re leaving her at this point, so whatever I can do, I’m willing to do," she said.
Karla Teuffer, who drives a hybrid, isn't exactly revved up about potentially paying more taxes, but if she does end up paying a per-mile tax, she wants to see receipts.
"I don’t like it. I don’t think we need to pay more taxes, but if it does pass, I think lawmakers should be really transparent about where the money is going and show receipts of who’s getting paid for what, because I feel like there’s so much distrust," Teuffer said.
County Supervisor Jim Desmond took a hard stance against the road usage fee, claiming SANDAG wants to "punish" San Diegans by forcing them out of car ownership and into trolley and bus dependency.
He also echoed Teuffer's concern about allocation.
"In 2004, SANDAG proposed a new sales tax to voters that would generate $14 billion dollars, which promised to relieve traffic congestion, improve safety, and match state/federal funds to improve the following freeways: I-5, I-8, I-15, SR 52, SR 54, SR 56, SR 67, SR 76, SR 78, SR 94, SR 125, I-805. Voters passed this under the impression their commute home would be made faster and easier. This has not happened. Instead, SANDAG staff front-loaded public transit projects while leaving 14 of the highway projects unfunded," Desmond said in an emailed statement.
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The agency says charging travelers fees for the transportation infrastructure they use is becoming more common, and said fees and more efficient infrastructure can help change traveling behavior -- the plan cites an increase in carpooling along Interstate 15 once managed lanes were introduced.
California has been testing charging around 2 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 and if miles should count when out of state. It is unclear how SANDAG will circumvent that issue.
The agency intends "to align with the latest planning efforts of the state to allow for adequate time to study and pilot pricing strategies, and to ensure that prior to implementing pricing strategies, there are adequate and available alternatives to the private automobile in place,'' a SANDAG document on the issue reads.
Here are the five endeavors the tax would fund, according to SANDAG:
Next OS: "The Next Operating System (OS) is the “brain” of the entire transportation system. It is a digital platform that compiles information from sources like passenger vehicles, delivery trucks, e-bikes, and scooters into a centralized data hub. Analysis of this data will improve how transportation is planned, operated, and experienced."
Complete Corridors: "Complete Corridors provide a variety of travel choices and use technology to manage how highways and major roads are used in real-time. They provide a balance of dedicated, safe space for everyone, including freight vehicles and people who walk, bike, drive, ride transit, and use Flexible Fleets."
Flexible Fleets: The Flexible Fleets strategy builds on the popularity of shared mobility services such as on-demand rideshare, bikeshare, and scootershare. These fleets provide different mobility options and vehicles for all types of trips, reducing the need to own a car. Services can make it easier for you to connect to high-speed transit and other important destinations by providing a last-mile connection or fulfilling a complete trip."
Transit Leap: "Transit Leap could create a complete network of fast, high-capacity, high-frequency transit services that connect major residential areas with employment centers and attractions throughout the San Diego region. Transit Leap services could connect to supporting Flexible Fleets in Mobility Hubs. New high-speed services — covering longer distances with limited stops— may be separated from vehicle traffic with bridges, tunnels, or dedicated lanes. Improvements to existing transit services—such as the Trolley, COASTER, SPRINTER, and Rapid—may include additional rail tracks, more frequent service, dedicated transit lanes, and traffic signal priority to keep transit moving quickly.
Mobility Hubs: "Mobility Hubs are places of connectivity where different travel options – walking, biking, transit, and shared mobility – come together. They provide an integrated suite of mobility services, amenities, and supporting technologies to better connect high-frequency transit to an individual's origin of destination. A mobility hub can span one, two, or few miles to provide on-demand travel choice for short trips around a community."
SANDAG is set to discuss the tax and the entire regional plan at a meeting on Friday and will present a final draft in December.