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SANDAG transportation plan in limbo over mileage tax, emission standards

San Diego County’s plan to meet greenhouse gas emissions is in a state of limbo tonight. The sticking point is a four-cent per mile tax on drivers. Some Democrats and Republicans on the SANDAG board say they don’t want it, but the state says it needs to be part of the plan. More on the back and forth from KPBS reporter John Carroll.

This story began last December, when SANDAG’s board of directors approved a $165 billion transportation plan to meet state-mandated levels of carbon emission reductions, without a four-cents per mile road usage charge.

They directed SANDAG staff to figure out another way to pay for it. That’s where things stood until early July, when a letter was written to California Resource Board (CARB) by SANDAG board member Jim Desmond.

“A group of us, myself included, and 6 other board members wrote a letter to CARB saying hey, the plan before you is being altered," Desmond said.

The CARB board oversees climate action plans across the state. When they received the supervisor’s letter, they wrote back.

“CARB is of the opinion that you have to have this mileage tax in order to meet the greenhouse gasses and things like that," Desmond said, paraphrasing CARB's letter to SANDAG.

Desmond opposes the mileage tax. But environmentalists see things differently.

“We are supportive of looking at whatever alternative or road-use charge is necessary ... to move us away from needing to use a car to go everywhere," said Corinna Contreras.

Contreras is the Transportation Policy Advocate for the San Diego-based Climate Action Campaign. Whether it’s a road-use charges or some other funding source, she said it’s critical the region meet state-mandated benchmarks.

“It’s just not feasible to have private transportation be the only way that people can move about our region. It’s not good for our economy, it’s not good for the levels of pollution in the air," Contreras said.

The proposal for a mileage tax has been controversial with both Democrats and Republicans in San Diego. If put in force, it would — for instance — add $1.60 to a person's 20-mile daily commute. That would come on top of gas taxes the driver is already paying, if they drive a gas-powered car.

“Essentially they’re trying to tax us all out of our cars," Desmond said of the mileage tax.

He said he’s all for reducing greenhouse gasses, and Desmond said he understands the state benchmarks must be met. But he favors a different approach.

“I think we should really be investing in technology and our roadway systems so that we can use them more effectively and more efficiently and basically get us from driving these vehicles and maybe instead of everybody having two or three cars for every family, you can summon a car, maybe you only need one car in your family," said Desmond — who also sits on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

But that technology isn’t a reality yet and the clock is ticking. SANDAG staff is set to come back with an alternative to the road-use charge next March — an alternative that has, so far, proven elusive.

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