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PD Editorial: Should Highway 37 become a toll road?

PC: Traffic was already backed up on Highway 37 as these vehicles head toward Infineon Raceway from Vallejo Sunday before 1 p.m. The track is about ten miles from this point. 6/23/2003: B1: Traffic heading west is backed up just after noon Sunday at the beginning of Highway 37 leaving Vallejo, headed toward Infineon Raceway, about 10 miles away.

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North Coast commuters — and anybody who has ever tried to get to Lake Tahoe on a Friday night — are familiar with the challenges of taking Highway 37 from Sonoma and Marin counties to get to Interstate 80. But on Friday, what was merely a daily inconvenience turned into a nightmare after a big rig crashed, forcing the closure of the highway in both directions for several hours. The Santa Rosa-area CHP office advised motorists to avoid the area, but the options are few.

This only has helped call attention to the growing challenges of traffic on Highway 37 and the need for a long-term solution.

As the Sonoma Index- Tribune reported last week, an alliance of business interests is offering one. The group is proposing to widen and raise the 21-mile section of Highway 37 between Novato and Vallejo — once known as “blood alley” for its multiple head-on collisions — and have the new four-lane elevated causeway paid for by having it converted into a toll road.

The group, United Bridge Partners, gave a presentation of the idea to Sonoma Valley business leaders on Oct. 7. It would provide the funding to get the project started.

“Our approach requires no public investment, allowing public funds to be spent on other priorities,” United Bridge Partners CEO Ed Diffendal told the Index-Tribune.

United Bridge Partners, based in Foster City, has some experience with this. It funded the new South Norfolk Jordan Bridge in Virginia, which opened to traffic in October 2012 serving the Chesapeake Bay region.

It’s a promising solution for a congestion problem that appears unmanageable and for which there’s no workable solution and no identifiable funding. Meanwhile, recent studies have pointed out that the troubles with the two-lane stretch of highway, separated only by a concrete median barrier, are only expected to get worse due to sea-level rise. According to studies by Caltrans and researchers at UC Davis, Highway 37 faces increased flooding and continual settling from unstable soil conditions in the area. The result is going to be the need for frequent repairs.

Give that, a simple solution such as a toll road is tempting.

But, this is no simple solution. Changing a public highway and making it a toll road is not going to be an easy task, nor should it be. It would require multiple approvals at the state level.

Those who have used Highway 37 as part of their daily commutes could suddenly find themselves having to pay a significant additional sum to use the same thoroughfare that they’ve used for years. For some, it could be too great of a cost. But once it’s built, they will have no option.

Many other questions remain: How much would the financing cost? How much would the private company stand to benefit from this arrangement, and would the toll continue even after the project is paid for?

Unlike areas of Southern California where toll roads are common, the Bay Area has been slow to embrace them — for good reason. In most cases, they’ve been used to finance the construction of new highways or the addition of new lanes. Converting an existing stretch of highway is a far more complicated matter. We need to be careful before we go down that road.