PD Editorial: A toll will hurt, but Highway 37 needs help

Critics say tolls are regressive, and they’re right. But there are ways to soften the blow.|

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

The estimated cost of expanding Highway 37 to ease traffic congestion is $430 million. So far, about $80 million is available for the job.

A more ambitious engineering project to protect the road from rising seas — a four-lane causeway running about 20 miles from Mare Island to Novato — is expected to cost $6 billion to $11 billion.

Doing nothing isn’t an option.

Westbound traffic already backs up about 2 miles during the morning commute, according to the Bay Area Infrastructure Financing Authority, and eastbound traffic backs up almost 5 miles during the evening commute. By 2045, under a do-nothing scenario, morning traffic would back up for 23 miles, afternoon traffic would back up for 19 miles in the afternoon, and a trip across the top of San Pablo Bay could take five or six hours.

And that dismal scenario assumes the highway isn’t inundated by a king tide, a storm surge or seas pushed higher by climate change.

So no one should be particularly surprised that the California Transportation Commission approved a toll to expedite the addition of a second lane in each direction between Vallejo and Sears Point.

The toll is likely to be $7 or $8 — matching the seven state-owned toll bridges in the Bay Area — and go into effect after the new lane is completed in 2027. Tolls would be collected electronically, presumably using the Fastrak system now used on bridges and express lanes.

Critics say tolls are regressive, hitting lower-income commuters harder than their more affluent counterparts. The critics are right. But there are ways to soften the blow. Golden Gate Bridge tolls, for instance, subsidize buses and ferries.

Regional transportation planners should explore the potential for bus service between Vallejo and the Highway 101 corridor, perhaps linking the SMART rail line in Petaluma and/or Novato. State traffic planners envision SMART eventually extending east across the top of the bay, but that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

To ease the bite, the toll plan includes a 50% discount for commuters with a household income below about $60,000 a year for a family of four.

Drivers will be able to avoid a toll entirely by carpooling. Once the highway is expanded, tolls will be charged for one lane, and the other will be a carpool lane on a 24/7 basis.

One important decision yet to be made is whether to charge a toll in both directions. A one-way toll would raise less money for the eventual construction of an elevated highway, but it would reduce the bite on commuters’ pocketbooks.

That deserves careful consideration. However it’s imposed, a toll will hit hardest on daily commuters, particularly less affluent Solano County residents who cannot afford to live closer to jobs in Marin and Sonoma counties.

That also could add a small element of fairness. With no toll planned for the Highway 37 segment west of Sears Point, which already has two traffic lanes in both directions, many motorists starting and finishing their trips in Marin or Sonoma wouldn’t pay any tolls.

Tolls won’t be popular, but Highway 37 is a vital link in the regional transportation network and waiting to relieve traffic or prevent calamitous impacts from climate change isn’t an option.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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