Traffic on the I-15 at junction with I-8. Photo by Chris Stone

The San Diego Association of Governments‘ board of directors passed the 2021 Regional Transportation Plan without the controversial road mileage tax Friday, but questions remain as to how the regional transportation agency will fund the $160 billion plan.

The 30-year plan includes a Central Mobility Hub with a direct transit connection to San Diego International Airport, relocating the train tracks on the Del Mar Bluffs into a tunnel, building a new trolley line to the east, and substantially increasing the route frequencies of public transit countywide.

The plan envisions making transit free for all riders within a decade, but also budgets billions of dollars for improvements to major urban road corridors as well rural highways in East County.

“This is a monumental day for the San Diego region,” said SANDAG Chief Executive Officer Hasan Ikhrata. “The 2021 Regional Plan creates real transportation options that address today’s challenges and build a foundation for tomorrow, ensuring our region is ready for generations to come.”   

A four-cents-per-mile road usage tax proposal and two half-cent regional sales taxes proposed for 2022 and 2028 were some of the key funding strategies SANDAG leadership proposed to support he plan.

However, last week SANDAG’s elected leadership — specifically Encinitas Mayor and Board Chairwoman Catherine Blakespear and vice chairs San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis — announced they didn’t support inclusion of the road usage tax.

“This is a visionary plan that needs broad public support to be realized,” Blakespear said. “The road-use charge represents one of the long-range options on the table for replacing the gas tax. And while the principles behind such a charge are well-understood, the mechanics of how it would be implemented are not.

“The fee is unnecessary for the plan to succeed,” she said. “That is why I asked, together with board leadership, to have it struck from the regional plan, and the board agreed.”

The Democratic dissent on the road usage plan looked to be a fatal blow for the plan, but the board — made up of representatives from the 18 municipalities in the county and from the county at large — cut the tax and passed the plan by 57.8% to 42.1%. The board weighs votes proportionally by a city’s population. The representatives from Carlsbad, Coronado, El Cajon, Oceanside, Poway, San Marcos, Santee and Vista all voted no.

“This Regional Plan makes the impossible possible,” Blakespear said. “It’s exciting to be here on the precipice of true change.

“Today’s vote to approve the greenest transportation plan in our region’s history was nothing short of historic,” she said. “We are delivering on the vision to transform our transportation system by providing our region with more choices for how to get around. We are also making a tangible difference in efforts to fight climate change and to maximize the road network for greater efficiency.”

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

Following the vote adopting the plan, the board directed SANDAG staff to find alternative funding solutions to the road-use charge.

Environmental groups celebrated the decision, which they claimed as a huge first step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions, decreasing air pollution and meeting the needs of the minority communities who have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The planet is burning and our current transportation system is heavily contributing to the fire, damaging our lungs and failing the low-income communities of color who depend on it the most,” said Carolina Martinez, climate justice director of the Environmental Health Coalition. She said that 93% of San Diego’s low-income residents “do not have access to fast and frequent transit and the 2021 Regional Plan provides critical lifelines to change that.”

Other groups worried the dealings to get the plan across the finish line were done out of sight of the public.

“Whether you vote aye or nay, there needs to be a formal, transparent process before coming to the SANDAG board room by which each of you, as representatives of your agencies, collect input from your fellow municipal elected leaders and the constituents you collectively represent,” said Haney Hong, president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association during his testimony in the meeting. “Without debates at your member agency, there is no assurance that you are not simply voting for your own personal priorities.”

Conservative groups balked not only at the price tag, but also a perceived unfairness as to how the plan would be funded, who would bear that burden and to what end.

“In SANDAG’s Regional Transportation Plan, the only thing ‘regional’ about it is the financial burden that will be on the back of every county resident,” said Poway Mayor and former Chairman of the SANDAG Board Steve Vaus. “For people living in North or East County, they will be paying the taxes for something they will never use — public transit.”

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.