Toll proposed for North Bay’s Highway 37
Prone to heavy traffic congestion and flooding, Highway 37 will receive short- and long-term improvements that will end up costing more for vehicles to drive on.
Buy-in for a $7 toll on the highway may turn into a bumpy road for commuters who drive the critical 10-mile stretch between Mare Island and Sears Point — but officials contend it’s necessary to add a lane to relieve congestion and, over the long haul, to elevate the highway because of flooding caused by storm and tidal surges.
“Overall, the project would be a benefit for those working or living in Marin and Sonoma. Two lanes in each direction rather than the single lane section would reduce travel time and allow transit options from Solano County to Marin,” Transportation Authority of Marin Executive Director Anne Richman said.
State and regional transportation officials are proposing the toll to help offset a $430 million price tag on the road widening of the road that overall runs 21 miles between Marin and Solano counties from U.S. Highway 101 to Interstate 80.
The prospect has prompted some grumbling from Vallejo residents who commute west to larger metro areas to work. The California Transportation Commission hosted a public hearing on the proposal in Vallejo on April 24 to broach the subject with residents. City officials noted a few complaints from residents already paying more for fuel, groceries and most things in life now.
“It’s hard to say if (a toll) would hinder the commute. We understand that they’re trying to improve the road — and trying to pay for it,” Vallejo city spokeswoman Christina Lee said in response. “It’s not like they’re giving up their six-figure job in Marin because they have to pay a toll. But some are upset because they feel they’re locked by tolls.”
Work on the added motorist lane is expected to start in 2025 and finish two years later. The electronic toll stations would begin with bus service and a low-income discount program.
And that’s the first, “short-term” step.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission secured more than $80 million the initial added lane. It will use the toll to pay back the $100 million raised from selling bonds to help with funding. That leaves $250 million remaining to improve the highway that carries more than 35,000 vehicles a day, a rate almost in line with pre-pandemic levels.
“Highway 37 is as heavily traveled as it ever was. You know, most of our (Bay Area) roads are running at 90% of pre-pandemic rates,” MTC spokesman John Goodwin told the Business Journal. “And, this is part of a bigger project on that highway.”
Over the long haul, the MTC in coordination with Caltrans plans to elevate the road into a 4-lane causeway (essentially a bridge) with a bike and pedestrian lane, along with a SMART rail connection. That endeavor will cost more like $6 billion and take 10- to 20 years to complete.
The state transportation agency views flood control as a “bigger battle,” with climate change bearing down, spurring a rise in sea level. Highway 37 sits only a few feet from the bay water. It’s often closed due to storm surges, including during those from this past winter.
“If we could get there quicker, we would. This (short-term improvement) is needed as a transitional measure. Some people say, ‘why should you waste your time,’ but we’ll need (both projects),” Caltrans Bay Area district spokesman Bart Ney said of the need for both projects.
Stanford University research, released in August 2020 using data from the San Francisco Conservation and Development Commission, provided a stark look at the state of getting around the Bay Area when sea levels rise due to climate change.
The scenarios include:
•Longer commute times. With the area already seeing traffic backups returning to pre-coronavirus levels, a 1-foot rise will add a half-hour to the average commute. The North Bay would particularly be vulnerable because, unlike other areas, it has fewer alternative routes.
•Plus, that 1-foot rise at the U.S. Highway 101 — Interstate 580 interchange in San Rafael could affect 522,000 weekday trips.
•And most impactful, any rise beyond 2 feet will threaten to cut a major North Bay commute route — state Highway 37 — already known to be affected by rainy weather.
A 3-foot rise could deliver massive flooding on the notoriously low-lying Highway 37 that sweeps the entire North Bay from Solano and Napa to Sonoma and Marin counties along San Pablo Bay’s tidal marshes. Highway 37 submerging may well impact more than 40,000 daily vehicle trips.
Tracking the big picture
To support the rail part of the grand plan, the California Department of Transportation commissioned a study in May 2019 through the Solano Transportation Authority and Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit to review the feasibility of running a rail extension from Marin County east along the Interstate 80 corridor.
The Solano County extension, designed to alleviate traffic congestion in and out of the San Francisco Bay Area, is part of the 2022 State Rail Plan.
Currently, the SMART trains run in a north-to-south direction over a 45-mile stretch linking Sonoma and Marin counties. Future connections are planned for Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale in northern Sonoma County
But the enhanced growth in Solano County driven partly by more biotech companies and other firms opening up in the area makes the idea of rail traffic more pressing.
The 90-page study examined seven potential Solano County rail station sites and pinpointed the Suisun-Fairfield Amtrak Station as a key recommendation to connect with the Union Pacific Railroad line to and from the Novato-Hamilton station.
Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. She can be reached at 530-545-8662 or firstname.lastname@example.org