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SANDAG board approves 30-year transportation plan in partisan vote

The first trolley rolls onto the Tecolote Road stop on the Mid-Coast Extension of the UC San Diego Blue Line, June 29, 2021.
SANDAG
The first trolley rolls onto the Tecolote Road stop on the Mid-Coast Extension of the UC San Diego Blue Line, June 29, 2021.

Board members of the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) on Friday approved a 30-year regional transportation plan that aims to wean the county off of car dependence with big investments in public transit and new toll lanes on freeways.

The vote was along party lines, with Democratic mayors, city council members and county supervisors in support and Republicans in opposition. Democrats praised the plan for its focus on supporting low-income communities and its ambitious goals of making biking, walking and riding public transit competitive with the automobile.

RELATED: SANDAG transportation plan forces debate over costs of climate action

"Advancing mobility choices is a top priority for me especially because our region for far too long has not invested in transit and active transportation options," said County Supervisor Nora Vargas. "These decisions in the past have left our transit dependent communities and communities of color behind since day one."

But Republicans said the plan is too expensive — it's expected to cost $163 billion over three decades — and that it ignores the mobility needs of car-dependent rural and suburban communities. They also blasted the plan's funding strategy, which envisions three sales tax measures and a "road user charge" of two cents for every mile driven in the county by 2030, all subject to voter approval.

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

"(The plan) sets the stage for taxing people that cannot afford it for a service they will never use or benefit from, and this is anything but equitable," said Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey.

SANDAG board approves 30-year transportation plan in partisan vote
Listen to this story by Andrew Bowen.

Oceanside City Councilmember Chris Rodriguez attempted to convince other board members to delay adoption of the transportation plan for 90 days. But that would have brought SANDAG out of compliance with state and federal laws, and Rodriguez's motion failed.

The road user charge emerged in recent months as the plan's most controversial element, with conservative activists vowing to use it as a campaign issue in future elections.

But the SANDAG board's Democratic leadership sought to block those attacks by directing the agency's staff to immediately start work on removing the road user charge from the transportation plan. Staffers are expected to present a revised plan without the road charge within six months.

"This regional plan, I believe, is visionary and broadly popular, and I think that this vehicle mile traveled fee — to have that included in the plan is a bit of a poison pill," said Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who chairs the SANDAG board.

The mileage fee is not just a strategy to fund infrastructure projects — it also functions as an environmental policy that would reduce driving, and by extension, greenhouse gas emissions. Striking the fee from the transportation plan will require SANDAG to find alternative funding sources, as well as alternative strategies to meet state-mandated climate targets.

SANDAG board approves 30-year transportation plan in partisan vote