San Diego’s $160B transportation overhaul calls for three tax hikes, plus road charges

San Diego Association of Governments Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata
San Diego Association of Governments Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata walks to the organization’s offices in Downtown San Diego in August 2020. Ikhrata is pushing an ambitious $160-billion plan for the region’s transit future.
(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and other Democratic leaders called on Friday to look for alternatives to a proposed per-mile fee on drivers


The San Diego Association of Governments — which has worked for more than two years on an ambitious vision to overhaul how San Diegans get around the county — faced pushback at a public hearing Friday from its 21-member board of elected officials over a plan to impose a per-mile tax on drivers starting in 2030.

Regional transportation officials with SANDAG released a final draft of their blueprint this week for the $160-billion plan calling for not only the road charges, but three separate tax hikes by 2028.

“We’ve received a resoundingly clear message that a proposed road-user charge in San Diego is unsettling and unsupported,” San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, vice chair of SANDAG’s Board of Directors, said at Friday’s meeting. Republicans have been objecting to the idea of road charges for months.

“To be completely honest,” he added, “I share that concern. Right now, I don’t think this particular part of the plan is something that we should be considering.”

SANDAG’s plan calls for, among other things, building a new high-speed transit system from the Mexico-U.S. border to Oceanside by 2050, as well as constructing a massive network of “managed” freeway lanes that serve buses, carpools and toll-paying customers. It would also move the train tracks off the crumbling Del Mar bluffs by 2035.

Agency officials noted that plans for a massive central transit hub envisioned for Old Town could be built downtown instead.

A cadre of Democratic leaders — who for months have supported the plan and raised no objections to road charges — joined Gloria on Friday to request the agency look for alternatives to collecting the per-mile fees. Those officials included Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis and Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas.

The group pointed to the recently approved $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure spending bill as providing potential funding that could offset the need for road charges.

SANDAG’s top officials said they would explore the possibility.

“When we put the plan together, we didn’t have a national stimulus, and now we do,” said Hasan Ikhrata, the agency’s executive director. “We heard from the leadership, and we’re going to evaluate (this) in the next few months and next few years.”

Republicans on the SANDAG board, who have vehemently opposed such per-mile fees, called on Friday to put the entire plan on hold until a new funding source could be identified.

“Wow, I’m shocked by these comments because for two years we’ve been talking about this, and it’s always been, ‘Yes, we love the funding, the funding is perfect,’” said San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones. “Although, many of the board members, including myself, have repeatedly, repeatedly said that road-user charges are not OK, that they are not acceptable.”

However, Democrats, who firmly control the board, showed no appetite for delaying approval of SANDAG’s regional transportation plan, which is slated for an official vote next Friday. If the agency failed to adopt the plan by the end of December, it would be in violation of state and federal rules and put itself in jeopardy of losing significant funding.

“We’re in a very formal legal process that needs to be followed,” Gloria said. “We do need to adopt our regional plan before the end of the calendar year, and I’m looking forward to doing that at next week’s board meeting.”

The road-user charge would come into effect in 2030, according to SANDAG’s plan. The timing was established to piggyback on a long-running effort by the Legislature to establish a statewide program to collect per-mile fees from drivers.

The idea is to replace dwindling revenue from the state’s gas tax as people drive electric and more fuel-efficient cars. Even if SANDAG nixes plans for such a per-mile fee, San Diego drivers could still be subject to a statewide requirement to pay such charges.

SANDAG expects the regional- and state-imposed road charges would amount to about 4 cents a mile, with the regional charge accounting for about 3.3 cents.

Future local revenue sources under the SANDAG plan also include three half-cent sales-tax increases. Labor and environmental groups are spearheading a ballot initiative for 2022 that if approved by voters would mark the first levy.

SANDAG’s plan envisions another tax hike organized by the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System for the 2024 election, with a final tax increase coming in 2028.

Elected officials raised no significant objections to these proposed tax hikes at Friday’s meeting.

SANDAG officials also said at Friday’s meeting that the agency is looking at several alternative locations to build a central mobility hub, often referred to as “San Diego Grand Central.”

The agency has been in negotiations with the Navy to build the envisioned facility, which would provide a transit connection to San Diego airport, at the Naval Information Warfare Systems Command, or NAVWAR, facility in Old Town.

However, on Friday, SANDAG officials said they were also looking at building the transit hub either in downtown or at the Port of San Diego’s headquarters along Pacific Highway.