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Could San Diego see a driving tax in its future?

 May 18, 2023 at 9:50 AM PDT

S1: You're listening to KPBS Midday Edition. I'm midday. Producer Andrew Bracken. Last week , San Diego County's transportation agency SANDAG passed its budget for 2024 , extending its program , providing free public transportation for San Diegans under 18. It's among the agency's efforts to bolster public transportation for the region and offer alternatives to driving. As part of that effort , SANDAG had included a driver usage charge in its 2021 regional transportation plan , but removed it last year despite objections from environmental groups. Among those was David Grubb. He's transportation chair of the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club and a board member of the Environmental Center of San Diego. David , welcome to Midday Edition.

S2: Happy to be here.

S1: So SANDAG in its transportation plan , had originally included a road usage charge. It was meant to be a four cent per mile charge for drivers , but it was later removed after pushback.

S2: The board directed the staff to come up with a revised plan that did not include the road use charge , but they have not yet presented that revised plan back to the board for approval.


S2: We're already paying a road use charge. It's called the gas tax. We're paying another road use charge. That's called the vehicle license fee. And in some places , we pay tolls when we drive on specific stretches of roads. All of those are different forms of road use charges. The problem is that the gas tax has been the primary source of revenue for funding , road building and maintaining roads. And the gas tax , as everyone knows , is declining because as vehicles got more fuel efficient , the value of the gas tax declined. And now with the switch to electric vehicles , electric vehicles , of course , pay no gas tax , which means they're not paying anything for the building and maintenance of the roads they drive on. So it's inevitable that we'll have to switch to some different form of road use charge that will be more equitable than the current gas tax. Right now , if you drive an electric car , you don't pay your fair share of building and maintaining roads and that means more of the load falls on the people who do drive gas powered cars.


S2: Makes people think about do I really need to take this trip ? So it has it has an impact. Even if all it does is replace the gas tax.

S1: And you make the case that even if the charge is removed from sandbags , plan a road usage charge may still be in San Diego's future regardless.

S2: Both the federal and state governments are looking at what has to be done to replace the gas tax. So both the feds and the state are contemplating road use charges. It's anticipated that the state will have a road use charge in effect sometime in the 2030. They have run a pilot project in the past. They're launching another kind of major pilot project which will run in 2024 and 2025 , which will test various methods for measuring and collecting the gas , the road use charge. Right now , there are four states in the US that have produced charge programs in effect and a number of others that are running pilot projects to test the various various approaches to the tax. Oregon , Washington , Virginia and Utah have road use charges in effect right now. The design in each case is a little different. Utah's for , for example , gas powered cars are not subject to the road use charge. Only electric vehicles are subject to the road use charge , and it's intended strictly as a replacement for the gas tax for those vehicles that don't use gas.


S2: I don't think had defined their program in any detail. They were assuming that they would add a like a local add on to whatever the state did. I don't think it was specified to that level of detail , but SANDAG was very clear that they intended both to replace the gas tax as a source of revenue and also to encourage people to drive less. So they were looking to do both things with that.


S2: The way it works , I'm Utah is the one I'm most familiar with in the state of Utah. If you register a car , you pay an annual fee , fixed fee for road usage. So everyone pays that maximum fee , but you can opt instead to pay by the mile. And if you pay by the mile , your total is capped at the cost at the fixed fee. So for anybody who doesn't drive very much , paying by the mile is better because you end up paying less and you would never pay more than the fixed fee in any case. And that's kind of an interesting way of doing it. You know , people can choose whichever one is going to work best for them based on how much they drive.

S1: And now several San Diego leaders , most notably San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria , ended up supporting removing the road usage charge from sandbags regional transportation plan. And we spoke to Mayor Gloria on Midday Edition about it last fall. And here's a little of what he had to say then.

S3: At the end of the day , the road usage charge will not work well in my mind if it's not matched with the kind of transportation choices that we don't currently enjoy. The idea is to make sure that San Diegans have multiple choices , but right now we have to admit we're still building out a system of pedestrian active transportation and mass transit that we don't currently have.


S2: And that won't change if off the road use charge that is imposed by the state and the feds just replaces the state and federal gas tax , then it won't mean much of a change for most people. They'll pay approximately the same amount in a road use charge that they used to pay in gas tax. It's a separate question then about whether SANDAG should add on any kind of additional road use charge. But you have to understand that the current gas tax doesn't cover anywhere near all the costs of building and maintaining roads. Building and maintaining roads is heavily subsidized out of general funds at all levels of government. So the gas tax is not paying the full share now. So there's some thinking that either we should increase the gas tax or if we go to a new form of road use charge , that it should be increased to the point where it covers more of the true cost of building and maintaining the roads that we drive on. Because right now , subsidizing road building and road maintenance out of the general fund puts it in competition with all the other services that we expect from government. So it's taking away from education , it's taking away from police , taking away from fire , it's taking away from from all kinds of government services to subsidize people driving.


S2: I think I think it was a dereliction of their duty to the public. And I sent several of them emails saying that exactly that that they had failed to do their duty. They should have responded to the pressure by educating the public about the realities of the situation rather than just caving to what was a very loud but but very small minority of the population of San Diego.


S2: It's perfectly clear that the gas tax is going to go away. I mean , California has set a goal of converting completely to electric vehicles , as have the feds. So at some point , there won't be any revenue coming from gas tax anymore , but the roads are still going to need to be maintained and they're still going to be cars driving on them. But they'll be electric cars instead of gas powered cars. So obviously we've got to do something about that. Otherwise , more and more money will have to come out of the general fund and it will take away from all the other things that our taxes are supposed to be paying for. So it's basically it's ridiculous to say there will not be a road use charge. There will be a road use charge in some form. There has to be. So that that's the big thing that's missing from this discussion is there is going to be a road use charge , like it or not. So then it becomes how should the program be designed so that it's fair , so that it works for the majority of people and so that people who use the roads and people who drive larger and heavier vehicles pay more because that's their fair share. People should be paying for what they use. I mean , when people ride transit , we expect them to pay the fare , but people expect to be able to drive on the roads and not pay for the privilege. You know , that mindset is just going to have to change.

S1: David Grubb is transportation chair of the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club and a board member of the Environmental Center of San Diego. David , thank you for speaking with me today.

S2: Thank you.

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A view of Interstate 15 with moderate traffic in San Diego on Nov. 19, 2021.
A view of Interstate 15 with moderate traffic in San Diego on Nov. 19, 2021.

In its 2021 Regional Transportation Plan, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) had originally included a drivers usage fee — drivers pay a tax of 4 cents for each mile driven.

But after public outcry and losing the support of local officials, the drivers usage fee was removed. Meanwhile, San Diego's ambitious climate goals loom large over efforts to pass such policy.


David Grubb, transportation chair of the San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club and a board member of the Environmental Center of San Diego.