Elected leaders clashed Friday over one of the most ambitious and controversial proposals in San Diego history – to tax drivers by the mile and make public transit free for all drivers by 2030.
The proposal is part of a $ 160 billion transportation plan drafted by the San Diego Association of Governments, which received conflicting comments Friday from its diverse 21-member board of directors.
“There has been a feeling for some time that SANDAG wants to make driving so expensive and painful that people are forced to get out of their cars, whether gasoline or electric, and take public transport.” said frustrated Poway mayor Steve Vaus, who vehemently opposed the plan, calling it a “shell game.”
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said he strongly supports the agency’s plan, which includes building a new high-speed transit system from the Mexican border to downtown neighborhoods. city ââand City Heights.
“Big changes are naturally difficult, and they will certainly have opponents, but for my part, I am committed to this vision,” he said during the public hearing. âIt is necessary for the protection of our economy, our climate and our environment.
SANDAG’s draft plan will almost certainly be approved in December when it is due to be presented to the agency’s board for an official vote. Democrats firmly took control of the influential decision-making body after the 2020 election.
However, the expensive plan has yet to secure funding. The agency said it would need not only a new per-kilometer charge for drivers – something being rolled out by the state to replace lower fuel taxes – but also a massive increase in fuel taxes. area sales tax.
Labor and environmental groups have launched a citizens’ initiative for the November 2022 poll that could help provide at least some of that funding. But while the proposed half-cent sales tax hike would only require a simple majority, not the two-thirds threshold required when government agencies launch such measures, opposition from Republican strongholds may s turn out to be great.
San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones echoed concerns voiced by several board conservatives that the plan would undermine long-promised freeway extensions for dedicated bus, carpool and customer lanes at toll.
âIt makes me really sad to see how many of these upgrades and mobility issues are being dealt with in San Diego City, but the North County is left out and the East County is left out,â he said. she said at the meeting.
Republican Supervisor Jim Desmond this week released a statement saying, âThis proposal should never see the light of day. Adding another tax, to finance public transport, is a slap in the face. “
San Diego’s more urban enclaves have been looking for ways to dramatically reduce car and truck travel for years. Tailpipe emissions, officials point out, pollute the air with everything from smog to greenhouse gases that warm the planet.
Electrification could eventually allay some of these concerns, but a proliferation of battery-powered vehicles will put more and more strain on the power grid and be no less prone to mind-numbing traffic, experts have warned.
SANDAG now hopes to solve all of these problems by attracting middle-class and high-income car commuters to public transport. The San Diego Metro Transportation System, which operates the area’s streetcar system as well as an extensive bus network, estimates that about 75% of its riders are low-income residents with little or no access to the city. car.
San Diego is not alone in its approach. Cities around the world have experimented with driving taxes and restrictions.
California launched its highway charge pilot project in 2015 under the direction of the state legislature, and Utah and Oregon have already started experimenting with per-mile charges. London and Milan charge drivers a fee to enter their most congested areas, and Paris plans to ban most vehicles in its city center by next year.
Supporters have said so-called road charges are the only possible way to limit traffic jams. They also argued that these fees are fairer than the current gasoline tax because low-income people tend to drive less fuel-efficient cars. In contrast, owners of electric vehicles, who tend to be more affluent, do not pay fuel tax.
In Friday’s meetings, SANDAG officials said the state as well as the region will offer discount programs under the new system for those struggling with the cost of transportation.
âYou can make it a lot fairer if we charge by the mile, because then you can make adjustments based on income,â said Ray Major, the agency’s chief economist.
Meanwhile, many cities in Europe are now experimenting with free public transport. Estonia has led the way, with its capital Tallinn offering free rides since 2013. Last year, Luxembourg became the first country to remove almost all charges for trains and buses, largely in response to traffic congestion.
Los Angeles and San Diego hope the new free youth and student passes will provide insight into the impacts of such policies. Specifically, officials are eager to see if ripple fares can reverse the dramatic drops in ridership caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The transit industry is actually in danger of becoming largely irrelevant,” said Thomas Rubin, a bay area-based transportation consultant and former Southern California government transit manager. “Believe me, there are a lot of people in the industry who are very, very scared.”
Most transportation experts agree that free public transit would dramatically increase the number of people using rail and bus services. For example, the LA metro area saw ridership explode by 40% in the 1980s after fares were cut from 85 cents a ride to 50 cents.
However, some experts are skeptical that free public transit will be enough to lure many commuters out of their cars.
âI don’t really think people who can afford to drive and value their time are going to take the train or the bus because it’s cheaper,â said Jim Moore, director of the transportation engineering program at the University of Southern California. âMost of the time, the reason for doing this is to serve the lower income groups. “
One of the benefits of making public transit completely free is that agencies can then waive fare collection charges, reducing the impact of any lost revenue. Most transit companies only recover a relatively small fraction of their operating costs from ticket sales.
That doesn’t necessarily apply to MTS, which historically had an unusually high fare clawback rate of around 30 percent, clawing back around $ 95 million in ticket sales on an annual budget of $ 300 million.
MTS CEO Sharon Cooney said she has no doubts that ridership will increase if the agency stops collecting tickets. The agency recently saw an increase in ridership after waving fares in September. But she said without new funding, buses and trains could be inundated with passengers and the service could suffer.
âI think that’s a great goal to have,â Cooney said. âIt’s just that the devil is always in the details. How are you going to pay for it? â