Bay Area officials eye future tolls as way to upgrade troubled Highway 37

A key advisory group for Highway 37 appears to be homing in on tolls to pay for construction that would ease traffic flow and address flooding.|

North Bay motorists suffering through congested traffic on Highway 37 or long detours from closures of the roadway caused by flooding may wish for anything to relieve them of their misery.

But does that include paying tolls?

A fee-based future appears to be gaining traction with a key advisory group tasked with long-term solutions for traffic and flooding on the heavily traversed 21-mile highway from Vallejo to Novato.

“I think everyone acknowledges there’s few options other than tolls to generate revenue needed to do a project of that scale in that location,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, chairman of the Highway 37 Policy Committee.

Rabbitt spoke Thursday following the committee’s meeting at Mare Island in Vallejo. The group includes representatives of transportation agencies in Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Solano counties, as well as the Metropolitan Transportation Agency.

Highway 37, which skirts the edge of San Pablo Bay, is increasingly at risk from sea level rise, and this winter was closed for weeks at a time as a result of storm-related flooding. The segment east of Sonoma Raceway, which narrows to two lanes, is a particularly problematic choke-point.

Figures released Thursday showed that a 21-mile trip that normally would take about 20 minutes without traffic on Highway 37 from Highway 101 in Marin County to the Solano County Fairgrounds in Vallejo takes about 50 minutes westbound, and 100 minutes going east, during peak commute times, which start as early as 1:30 p.m.

The speed limit across most of the highway is 65 mph.

A consultant hired by the policy group to address options for Highway 37 improvements - ranging from building a seawall to an elevated causeway - said paying for the work boils down to charging tolls or waiting for Caltrans to identify funding for the work.

That assumes the state ever makes the highway a priority. Under traditional funding methods, the state would not have enough money to start construction until 2088, beyond the lifetime of those now studying what to do with the highway, one committee member dryly noted Thursday.

By contrast, such work could be completed in as little as eight years by charging tolls and by public agencies partnering with private companies on construction, according to Jose Luis Moscovich, executive vice-president of Project Finance Advisory Limited, a San Francisco-based consultancy.

“What you have is the possibility of breaking loose from the normal constraints in terms of funding a transportation project in the state,” Moscovich said.

Under one scenario he highlighted, charging motorists a toll between $1.05 and $2.25 along segments of a newly established toll road on Highway 37 - or a total of $5 to travel the entire length from Interstate 80 in Vallejo to Highway 101 in Novato - would generate an estimated $12.5 billion over 50 years.

That conceivably would more than cover the cost of roadway improvements identified in an influential UC Davis study, which estimated the price tag for significant improvements on Highway 37 in the $1 billion to $4 billion range.

Another option would be to charge motorists a flat $5 toll just to cross the 12-mile section of highway from Mare Island to Sonoma Raceway at the intersection of Highway 121, generating an estimated $9.3 billion.

United Bridge Partners, a private investment firm with headquarters in Foster City, has proposed a toll option for that stretch of highway. Under that plan, the state would relinquish the right-of-way to the company, which would fund the construction and charge a toll to recoup its cost.

Moscovich, the former head of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, noted that a public-private partnership, in combination with toll revenue, would give Highway 37 stakeholders more financing options for the work.

But some committee members privately express reservations about turning Highway 37 over to private enterprise, fearing it could leave local governments holding the bag in the event that an operator defaults.

Another major hurdle is getting the public to support paying more than they already do in the form of gas taxes and other fees for what is now a publicly funded transportation corridor.

Novato City Councilwoman Pat Eklund, who is not a member of the highway study group, told the panel Thursday that toll roads are an “affordability issue” for low- and middle-income earners. She encouraged the panel to explore other options.

Napa County’s representatives on the panel, including Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza, expressed concerns about traffic being worsened on other roads as a result of motorists avoiding tolls on Highway 37. But those concerns appear a long way off. The highway study group, which isn’t planning to meet again until September, is still in the fact-finding stage. Rabbitt acknowledged frustration among some committee members at the pace of the process, which he said can be “agonizingly slow.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336.

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