This California City’s Attempt to Charge People for Driving Back-Fired. Here’s Why That Matters for Everyone
La Mesa appears to be as progressive and open-minded as it gets. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2:1 margin—and, generally speaking, the San Diego suburb votes bright blue. On a downtown lot that was once home to a police station and is now vacant, the city council plans to create low-income apartments. It adopted four years ago a plan to drastically reduce local greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s the kind of place where someone like Laura Lothian, who is cut from the cloth of conservative cable news, might not be the most popular. In a recent conversation on the patio of her hillside home, she railed against COVID-19 shutdowns and unisex dressing rooms, and told me with delight about her “intimate” meal with “MTG”—Marjorie Taylor Greene, a U.S. Representative from Georgia known for trumpeting far-right conspiracy theories.
It turns out that Lothian was exactly what La Mesa needed. In November, she clinched an unlikely electoral victory, becoming La Mesa’s newest city councillor, by focusing on a single issue: opposing a new road-usage fee, which would charge people for every mile they drive. Lothian hoped that with gasoline prices increasing and inflation rising to the highest point in decades, voters would be more concerned about their wallets than their concerns about climate change. It paid off. “This issue brought out everybody—and it changed things,” she says.
Road-usage fees don’t seem outlandish. It’s part of a $160 billion plan to restructure San Diego County’s transportation system, spearheaded by the regional planning authority, the San Diego Association of Governments, also known as SANDAG. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that more than twelve states have been considering similar fees. It’s simple: By imposing a modest fee for mileage driven, the state and local governments can recover some revenue lost in gas taxes. These are decreasing as more people use electric cars. This will encourage people to use public transport or rideshares, but it is not a way for them to make up their losses. San Diego would benefit from this new fee, which will fund many local emissions-reducing initiatives.
At first, SANDAG’s road-usage fee, which is slated to go into effect in 2030, flew under the political radar. However, last year as energy prices rose, San Diego Republicans saw it as an opportunity to become a political treasure trove. “We made this issue the singular issue in that race,” says Carl DeMaio, a local Republican activist, referring to Lothian’s campaign. “The Mileage Tax being backed by La Mesa City Council members would charge you 4–6 cents PER MILE you drive—costing $600–900 per driver in La Mesa!” read one Lothian mailer.
Lothian’s surprise victory upended politics in San Diego County. Immediately, Democrats in the area began to backtrack, insisting they don’t support the road-usage fees or demanding that more research be done. Meanwhile, Republicans intensified their focus on the issue and made it the central theme of their 2022 campaign. A call made by a Republican from the area to fill out county officials’ inboxes with information, thousands responded. “This is kryptonite for the Democrats,” DeMaio says.
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It’s not just San Diego. The political drama playing out in this sunny Southern California outpost is in many ways a microcosm of what’s happening both nationally and globally. As energy prices rise at the same time that many governments are finally getting serious about climate change, lawmakers are facing an inescapable dilemma: effective climate policy requires raising the price of fossil fuels—and, by extension, the price of high-carbon products and services. However, raising prices is widely opposed by voters especially in times when energy costs have risen rapidly, as well as during periods of inflation.
It is difficult for climate-minded politicians to make a decision. People who hike prices to pass climate action plans run the risk of losing their jobs. However, those who resist doing so will make it difficult for communities to survive in a climate in which catastrophic, unchecked climate change is a far more prevalent and costly problem. Whether democratic societies can enact policies that meaningfully curb greenhouse gas emissions depends on whether elected officials—in San Diego and around the world—are able to navigate this political tar pit.
“There’s a tension with implementing this plan at a rate that people can accept, against the backdrop of the climate crisis, of economic challenges and other externalities,” says Todd Gloria, the Democratic mayor of San Diego, who supported the road-usage fee before reversing his position in the wake of Lothian’s victory late last year. “People often are fearful of change, and they often resist it until they can see it.”
Democrats’ kryptonite, Republicans’ goldmine
The standing-room-only crowd at the local veterans’ hall in Oceanside, Calif., about 40 miles north of San Diego, feels a little like a Trump rally. While the meeting is about the road-usage fee and SANDAG’s larger regional plan, attendees sport Trump hats and anti-vaccine T-shirts, and upon entering, I am asked to sign a petition in favor of school choice. At one point, an audience member yells, “Stop the steal!”
While Lothian and others readily admit that the road-usage fee is hardly the biggest topic concerning local Republicans, they see it as a crucial wedge issue, capable of sparking outrage, wooing moderates, and ultimately gumming up the Democrats’ broader agenda on climate and other issues. DeMaio, who is hosting the town hall, tells the crowd to think strategically: Republicans need to leverage anger over the road-usage fee—which he and other conservatives call a “mileage tax”—to reach voters who might not be following politics closely. “When we approach voters, we only need two or three issues,” he tells the crowd. “This is going to be one of the most important issues in bringing voters over and creating a coalition that can help us change policy.”
One reason the road-usage fee is so politically useful, DeMaio tells me, is because unlike a lot of climate policy, it’s easy to understand: the more people drive, the more they’ll pay—and no one likes to pay. Lothian likened the road-usage fee with a taximeter, which just keeps going up. “You’re halfway there and you want to jump out of the car,” she says. It is also difficult to explain the benefits of this new fee. SANDAG expects it to raise $14 billion in revenue over two decades, which would help underwrite new trolley lines, more efficient highway lanes, and rideshare programs—benefits that don’t necessarily accrue to voters’ bank accounts.
In February, I saw the ripple effects of Lothian’s electoral victory firsthand. Nearby San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones is active in conservative circles and has made road usage fee her priority during her reelection campaign. Her constituents, already battling high gas prices, can’t afford to pay anything more, she says. “It’s a complete lack of understanding as to what is happening to people financially,” she adds.
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The issue is causing problems in other areas of the county and has forced Democratic leaders to take a stand. Gloria is a prominent member of SANDAG’s board. To explain reversing field on the road-usage fee, he argued that while the concept could make for smart policy, the timing wasn’t right. He said that there is a problem with public-transit options. They aren’t good enough yet to be able to replace driving. He says another problem is the current political and economic environment. “I think that there’s a wrong time to ask San Diegans to consider this,” he told me.
Paul McNamara, the Democratic mayor of Escondido, about 40 minutes north of San Diego, remains an unshakable supporter of the road-usage fee—and he has the political bruises to show for it. He was voted out of the SANDAG board by Republican members of Escondido’s city council, leaving Escondido with no representation on an organization that annually spends hundreds upon millions of dollars on local improvement projects. McNamara dismissed the whole thing as political game play. “There’s always some silliness during election years,” he says.
The powerful politics behind energy prices are not something that can be ignored by elected officials. The President Biden has taken every step to reduce high prices for energy, even though he declared that climate change was his top priority. The Biden Administration pushed the OPEC oil cartel to increase its production last year as crude-oil prices rose. After that failed effort, 50 million barrels were released from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve by the Administration. This was a precautionary move. On Feb. 24, even as Biden sanctioned Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, he promised to “do everything in my power to limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump.”
David Turk, U.S. deputy secretary of energy, stated last November that affordable energy is a prerequisite to strong U.S. policy on climate change. “You’ve got to have affordable and resilient, reliable energy for Americans. That is a political imperative,” he told me. “Everything else depends on that.”
At least for now in the U.S., enacting climate policy means electing Democrats—and evidence both anecdotal and scientific suggests that an uptick in energy prices creates a serious liability for Democrats. The journal- Applied EconomicsIt was found that historically high oil prices increase the probability that an incumbent President will lose a state which he has previously won during a presidential campaign. Democrats may face a difficult next election cycle. The fivefold increase in monthly average oil prices from April 2020 was accompanied by an inflation of a variety of consumer goods.
Some legislators are starting to take steps towards damage control. In California’s Central Valley, U.S. Representative Josh Harder, a Democrat, has made gas prices a key issue, urging a suspension of the state’s gas tax, which, combined with strict environmental rules, makes California’s gas consistently the most expensive in the country. “I almost had a heart attack filling up my tank,” he said on a local television interview.
The same is true for governments across the globe. Frans Timmermans from the E.U. was the chief of climate policy. He told me that in September he was well aware of the social consequences of climate policy. “If the package leads to social disruption, it will never happen,” he said. “The only way we can address the climate crisis is in a socially acceptable- way.” A few days later, Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada, who has worked to decarbonize his country, told me he worried about the upheaval that might come from too aggressive an approach to taxing fossil fuels. “Fuel for vehicles is something very close to people, and people are having a hard time,” he said. “Going straight to taxes, particularly when it comes to the people, is something delicate.”
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When I visited San Diego, Jerry Brown, the former governor of California, was a progressive thinker about climate change. I wanted to know how Brown had handled the difficult political task of telling voters why prices might need to go up. Brown declined to answer my question. The reality, he said, is that higher prices are unpopular and politicians “can’t shove it down [the public’s] throat,” until they are ready to accept it. “Everyday people are going to say, ‘We don’t need this cost, and so we’re not going to support it,’” he says. “It’s going to take the historic context.” But with temperatures already having risen 1.1°C since the Industrial Revolution and the U.N.’s climate-science body warning on Feb. 28 of a “brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all,” it’s hard to imagine a context more historic.
Global climate policy is facing a major challenge
On the 20th floor of a San Diego skyscraper, at the end of a hallway under renovation, SANDAG’s senior leadership has created what they call a “vision lab” but to me feels like a makeshift war room. The goal is to wage a fight for SANDAG’s larger regional plan. “We are totally reimagining the future of the transportation system,” says Hasan Ikhrata, the agency’s executive director, “not only in San Diego but actually in California and the country.” Using a topographic map of the county the size of a large door, he shows me where new trolley lines will be built and where locals will be able to catch subsidized rideshares. He also shows me a network of “mobility hubs,” where new housing may be built in close proximity to transit.
According to him, the road-usage tax is part of a much larger plan. The fee raises the revenue needed to pay for the project. It also charges drivers and makes ride-sharing and public transit attractive. These factors will drive a 20% per capita reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2035, according to the agency’s data. Ikhrata recognizes that driving will become more expensive and therefore controversial. But, he insists, there’s no way around it. The cost of driving, as measured by everything from traffic jams to emissions, is simply too great, and right now, people don’t pay. That’s a problem when you’re trying to get people to change habits. “Bad pricing kills good planning,” he says. “You could have the best plan in the world, if you don’t price the system right, in a market economy it’s not going to work.”
And so we return to the central challenge facing climate policy in democratic societies across the globe: how do leaders get voters to accept an immediate burden, in the form of higher prices, in exchange for a diffuse, future benefit—mitigating catastrophic global crisis. Polls are showing that Americans want more from the federal government in combating climate change. Yet, the same polls reveal that Americans will only pay a minimal amount for it.
“It’s an unpopular thing to say, but energy prices have been too low for a long time,” says Michael Greenstone, the director of the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute and a former chief economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers under Barack Obama. “As countries around the world, and more generally societies, begin to make it more complicated to produce energy from fossil fuels, prices are going to go up—and we actually want them to.”
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Accepting that fossil fuel prices must rise and that carbon-intensive activities like driving and flying should rise as well, the next question is how governments can manage these cost increases. Greenstone is one of many economists who suggest such policies be supported by rebates for the most vulnerable. This could be in the form checks, debit cards or cash directly deposited. This is the way that tens to millions of Americans got stimulus money during the epidemic. Some others suggest that a complicated policy package fund everything, from job training to bus passes.
The regional plan in San Diego took a similar all-of-the-above approach—both to advance the policy and to build political will, Ikhrata says. The framers highlight new rules that foster the development of affordable housing along transit lines; reduced pollution that helps address health ailments in some of the region’s vulnerable communities; and road improvements that make driving easier and safer. Locals aged 18 or under will be able to ride the public transportation free of charge starting this spring.
The regional plan’s obvious advantages are well-known, but few people expect that the road-usage fee will survive the near future. The SANDAG board approved the entire plan in December. However, it is possible that the fee will be scrapped after the fact. A measure was also adopted by the board promising to revise this year’s road-usage fee. “We have started the discussion,” says Ikhrata. “Does that translate into people just accepting it? Of course not.” SANDAG’s larger regional plan has multiple funding sources, including a sales tax and state and federal funding, so it’s not dead in the water. But without a fee the emissions math won’t add up as projected.
Strong leadership and good communication are key to getting the public to agree with price increases. This is why many of those who support the San Diego road usage fee (including Jack Shu, La Mesa Democratic councilman) are disillusioned. Shu refers to academic literature as a reason for the fee, and expresses anger at the way opponents have politicized this issue. He does not blame his Democratic colleagues for failing to see the plan through. “What I constantly hear is, ‘We can’t do that. We have to deal with political reality,’” he says. “And now I understand political reality: it’s about getting enough votes for the next election.”
Climate change is becoming more pressing. This means that policy changes will not be simple. It is important that politicians recognize this and work together to find truthful ways of communicating with the public. —-By reporting Simmone Shah and Nik Popli are Leslie Dickstein and Nik Popli