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Close to Home: Building a bridge to relief on Highway 37

Traffic on Highway 37.

STEVE PAGE ,  

In its editorial Sunday (“What to do with ‘Blood Alley’ ”), The Press Democrat pondered the conversion of Highway 37 between Sears Point and Vallejo to a four-lane toll road, a concept largely foreign to Bay Area motorists. However, substitute the word “road” with “bridge” and the notion becomes far more conventional.

Hundreds of thousands of local commuters cross one or more of seven toll bridges on a daily basis, traversing routes that include critical arteries of our regional transportation network.

Highway 37 spans one of those vital corridors, connecting the North Bay with Solano County and the Sacramento Valley for commute, freight and leisure travel. And, as anyone who drives it on a regular basis can testify, it’s a mess.

Daily commuters lose hundreds of hours a year that could be spent with their families or in other productive pursuits. And, as their stalled vehicles spew carbon into the atmosphere, they contribute to the very factors — global warming and sea level rise — that will ultimately doom the existing roadway. For the wineries, hotels and other visitor-serving businesses in the Sonoma and Napa valleys that contribute so much to our economic vitality, this wall of congestion is an ongoing deterrent to trade. In the event of an earthquake or other disaster, the delivery of critical emergency services in this region is reliant on a largely dysfunctional roadway.

So where’s the solution? Our government at all levels has made it clear that the cupboard is bare. Improvements to Highway 37 do not even show up in Caltrans’ 50-year plans.

Enter a group called United Bridge Partners, an investor-backed consortium that includes the Figg Bridge Group, one of the world’s leading transportation engineering firms. (Anyone who has driven around Grandfather Mountain on North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway has experienced an example of Figg Bridge’s commitment to aesthetics and environmentally sensitive construction design.) They propose to construct two additional lanes from Sears Point to Vallejo, replacing a sea of brake lights with a free-flowing four-lane highway.

The new road segment is proposed as a combination of elevated parkway and bridge over environmentally sensitive tidal marshes. Commuters would pay a one-way toll, with a contractual commitment that the fee would never exceed those of the other Bay Area bridges. Over time, as the existing roadway becomes unsustainable, a second two-lane segment would be added to replace it. All construction and ongoing maintenance would be the responsibility of United Bridge Partners, and a portion of all toll proceeds would be dedicated to a trust fund established to support wetland restoration initiatives. Figg would serve as construction manager, but the actual work would be done by local contractors and local labor.

United Bridge Partners has indicated that from the time government approval is finalized, the project could move from design to completion in 30 months. Their South Norfolk Jordan Bridge in Virginia was built in two years with no government funding. Free-flowing traffic on Highway 37 by the end of the decade? What a delightful prospect to consider.

Should this proposal be rubber-stamped without careful consideration and study? Of course not. Before turning over a public asset to a private entity, this process needs to play out in a very public and transparent manner. Our elected officials will need to engage in tough-minded negotiations to forge a deal that builds in iron-clad accountability and protects the public interest for decades into the future.

Can that deal be made? We won’t know until we try. But this is a real opportunity on the table today to address a critical public need, and it may not be there tomorrow. Let’s get busy.

Steve Page is president and general manager of Sonoma Raceway.