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SANDAG transportation plan takes carrot-and-stick approach to climate action

Traffic on Interstate 5 freeway at Sea World Drive on Nov. 24, 2020.
Matthew Bowler
Traffic on Interstate 5 freeway at Sea World Drive on Nov. 24, 2020.

SANDAG board members on Friday discussed updates to their next regional transportation plan, including a carrot-and-stick approach to lure drivers into more sustainable modes of transportation.

The plan's funding strategy relies in part on a 4-cent fee that would be charged to motorists for every mile they drive on county roadways. The fee, which is currently only a concept, would depend on changes to state and federal law and would not take effect until 2030. That same year, SANDAG aims to make public transit free for everyone.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria praised SANDAG officials for crafting a plan that meets aggressive state mandates to cut greenhouse gas emissions.


"Big changes are understandably difficult, and they certainly will have opponents," Gloria said. "But I for one am committed to this vision. It is necessary for the protection of our economy, our environment and our climate.

Many economists say policies that make driving more expensive are among the most effective strategies at reducing car travel, which is San Diego County's biggest contributor to climate change.

But conservatives on the SANDAG board have seized on the mileage fee as government overreach, while also criticizing the transportation plan's project list. Freeway widenings long sought by officials in North County would be abandoned due to their tendency to induce more driving, while the plan makes major investments in new and improved public transit services.

"Many of these upgrades and these mobility issues are being addressed in San Diego city, but North County is being left out and East County is being left out, and it just really is unfair," said San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones.

While much of the board's discussion centered on the mileage fee, SANDAG's funding strategy includes a much more immediate component: a half-cent sales tax measure to be voted on next year.


A coalition of labor unions and environmental groups this week announced they are crafting their own sales tax proposal that would fund some of the projects in the SANDAG transportation plan, including a rail connection to the San Diego airport and a realignment of the north coastal rail corridor away from the collapsing Del Mar bluffs.

Because that tax measure would be a citizens initiative, it would require only a simple majority of voters to win approval. Any tax measure crafted by SANDAG itself would need approval from two-thirds of voters.

Next SANDAG Regional Plan hopes to meet state mandated greenhouse emissions

SANDAG executive director Hasan Ikhrata said his agency is legally prohibited from investing any staff time or resources in the outside group's initiative, but that it could be a useful tool in achieving the transportation plan's goals.

"We are excited by any efforts to help implement our vision," Ikhrata said.