Business coalition pitches toll road proposal for Highway 37 upgrade

A coalition of business interests are pitching a plan to upgrade chronically congested Highway 37 by making it a toll road, saying taxpayer funds don’t exist to cover the costly project.|

An alliance of business interests is seeking to establish one of the few toll roads in the Bay Area to widen and raise Highway 37 between Novato and Vallejo, the latest proposal seeking to ease chronic congestion and address environmental concerns along the notoriously bottlenecked 21-mile stretch of road.

Few Bay Area roads spark as much motorist rage as Highway 37, particularly the two-lane section between Mare Island and the Sonoma Raceway built upon a levee bisecting marshlands. Besides congestion, that section of the highway is the site of frequent mishaps, including Friday morning when a hay-laden big-rig overturned on the highway near Vallejo and caught fire, causing massive traffic backups.

But asking motorists to pay more than what they already do through taxes to improve conditions on a roadway derisively dubbed “Blood Alley” would likely generate blowback. Northern California has two toll roads, with more planned.

Still, some business leaders are betting that motorists see a benefit in going that direction on Highway 37.

“My gut is that if you could go at 70 mph over that corridor and not sit in traffic then paying a daily toll would be something most people would be willing to do,” Steve Page, president and general manager of Sonoma Raceway, said Friday.

Page is a main proponent of the toll road plan, which is being pitched by United Bridge Partners, a private investment firm with headquarters in Foster City.

The proposal likely would require a raft of county and state agencies to sign off on the deal, as well as action by the Legislature to authorize converting the highway to a toll road. But some officials see that option as the only viable way to make improvements on Highway 37, given a lack of other transportation funds.

“Virtually nothing is available from any federal, state or local source,” said Sonoma County Transportation Authority Executive Director Suzanne Smith.

The Bay Area’s two toll roads are in Alameda and Santa Clara counties: I-680 southbound from Sunol to San Jose; and Highway 237 between Milpitas and San Jose. Solo drivers pay via FasTrak to use the express lanes. A total of 550 miles of express lanes are planned in the Bay Area by 2035.

Transportation officials considered tolls to help pay for the widening of Highway 101 between Novato and Petaluma. But that idea never took off.

Proponents of toll lanes argue they are an invaluable source of revenue and help ease congestion by getting solo drivers to their destinations more quickly while freeing up more room on the road for everyone else.

Others argue tolls create an unfair system favoring the more financially well-off and that other roads experience an increase in traffic as people seek to avoid paying.

Page said easing congestion on Highway 37 would benefit Sonoma Valley’s tourism industry in particular by speeding up travel times to destinations. It also presumably would cut down on the number of eastbound motorists who turn onto Arnold Drive and then make a U-turn in the raceway’s driveway in order to turn left on the highway and avoid traffic backed up at the stoplight.

Page said hundreds of “angry, frustrated” motorists make “crazy maneuvers” in the raceway’s driveway, and that the practice has led to crashes.

He also acknowledged the burden raceway traffic imposes on others.

“If we can alleviate that burden, great,” he said.

Page hosted a group of Sonoma Valley business leaders at the racetrack recently to promote the toll road plan.

United Bridge Partners proposes to use a portion of the toll revenue for environmental work. A 2012 stewardship survey conducted by Caltrans and UC Davis concluded that rising sea levels pose a threat to Highway 37.

According to maps generated by Climate Central, an independent group of scientists and journalists focused on climate change, there is an 80 percent chance the highway will be under up to five feet of water by the start of the next century.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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