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Local mayors get cold feet on plans for mileage tax on San Diego drivers by 2030

University Avenue in Hillcrest is seen full of cars, Oct. 31, 2017.
Andrew Bowen
University Avenue in Hillcrest is seen full of cars, Oct. 31, 2017.

The long-awaited update to San Diego County's regional transportation plan was thrown into doubt Friday after key local elected officials suddenly came out against part of the plan's funding strategy.

The plan from the regional planning agency SANDAG includes a proposal to charge motorists for every mile they drive, likely replacing the gas tax, which is bringing in less and less money for road maintenance as more cars go electric.

The "road user charge" would theoretically take effect in 2030 — the same year public transit would become free — but it will require a lot of things to fall into place.

It would depend on changes to state law and approval by local voters. The transportation plan assumes the state of California will charge 2 cents per mile, while SANDAG would charge an additional 2 cents.

The revenue from those taxes would pay for a major expansion of public transportation across the county, along with other infrastructure investments that aim to meet strict state-mandated greenhouse gas reductions.

RELATED: San Diego Pledged To Shift Away From Cars. So Why Is It Still Widening Roads?

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria previously appeared open to the mileage tax, but said at Friday's SANDAG board meeting that it was too unpopular among his constituents.

"Over the past weeks we have received a resoundingly clear message that a proposed road user charge in San Diego is unsettling and unsupported, and the uncertainty over this impact is looming large in our region," Gloria said. "Right now, I don't think that this particular part of the plan is something that we should be considering."

SANDAG faces a year-end deadline for approving an updated transportation plan, after already receiving a two-year extension from both the state and federal governments. Gloria suggested he would support the transportation plan as it's currently written when it comes up for a vote on Dec. 10, but that he would direct SANDAG staff to immediately begin updating the plan to eliminate the road user charge from its funding strategy.

Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who chairs the SANDAG board, and National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis were also among the elected officials who came out against the mileage tax Friday.

Local Republicans have been opposing the mileage tax concept for months, and have seized on it as an opportunity to win back seats from Democrats in local government. Conservative radio host and organizer Carl DeMaio used it in his campaigning for Laura Lothian, a Republican who won a special election for a La Mesa City Council seat last month.

But environmental activists say the mileage tax is an important part of the broader strategy to increase funding for more sustainable transportation modes, and the urgent threat of climate change means elected officials have to be brave in pushing for disincentives to driving, even if they're politically risky.

Local mayors get cold feet on plans for mileage tax on San Diego drivers by 2030

La Mesa City Councilmember Jack Shu said the status quo allows electric vehicle drivers, who tend to be wealthier, to avoid paying their fair share for transportation infrastructure.

"A road use fee is much more equitable than the current way of paying for roads, a gas tax," Shu said. "We have a road use fee now. It's not working. It's going to work less in the future. We must convert to a better system sooner rather than later."