PD Editorial: Is charging a toll the only way to fix Highway 37?

Who aspires to being second choice?

Such is the fate of California Highway 37, a two-lane road connecting Vallejo and Novato across the top of San Pablo Bay. It passes through Solano, Sonoma and Marin counties along its 21-mile route and skirts the southern edge of Napa County.

Traffic is thick during commute hours and worse when Sonoma Raceway hosts NASCAR and other big events. If sea levels rise as forecast over the next century, the road will be inundated. King tides and winter storms already flood parts of Highway 37.

Yet this road isn’t the top transportation priority for any of the four affected counties.

This important regional link isn’t on the state’s radar either. It doesn’t even appear on state highway project lists that stretch across the next four decades, although daily traffic is expected to increase from 37,500 vehicles to 70,000 by 2040.

Highway 37 is something of an orphan. But there’s a group that wants to adopt it.

A consortium of private builders stepped forward last year with plans for a two-lane viaduct between Vallejo and Sears Point, a proposal since expanded to four lanes. The state highway would become a private road, and tolls would be charged to pay for construction, with a portion of the revenue dedicated to restoring bay wetlands. Such a project would cost at least $1 billion.

It’s an interesting idea. And the consortium, a Foster City-based group called United Bridge Partners, has completed similar projects in Virginia and Indiana.

But, as we said last fall, there are unanswered questions. Here are a few that must be addressed before moving ahead:

How large a toll would be required?

Would enough Highway 37 commuters seek out alternative routes to create new traffic issues on other roads?

If the road isn’t upgraded, and traffic congestion gets worse, will drivers seek problematic alternatives anyway?

What would happen to Highway 37 west of Sears Point, which faces the greatest threat from rising sea levels?

Would the state regain ownership of the highway after the viaduct is paid off (and before it requires a costly overhaul)?

Could a public agency, perhaps the Bay Area Toll Authority, complete the project without giving up ownership of a public asset?

The four affected counties are beginning to pursue some answers, with the transportation authorities in Sonoma and Solano counties taking lead roles in the process. They have convened public meetings with presentations from UC Davis climate scientists, Caltrans officials and representatives of United Bridge Partners. As Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt put it, the four counties “are trying to do our due diligence.”

If the toll road approach is adopted, which would require state legislation, it would be a back-to-the-future project. Before it was added to the state highway system in 1938, the route across the top of the bay was a toll road. An article in the June 23, 1928 edition of the Sausalito News reported that the road, built for $800,000, would open July 4, with a toll of 35 cents for a car and driver, plus five cents for each additional passenger.

With steadily increasing traffic and the prospect of calamitous effects from climate change, the four counties must explore all options, including a toll road. But they should proceed with caution.

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