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Walsh: For whom the bill tolls

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The proposal to turn Highway 37 into a toll road has been bandied about for years, but the idea gained new momentum when state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, introduced legislation that would allow the state to begin levying drivers between Sears Point and Mare Island ASAP.

There’s little debate over whether Highway37 warrants a redesign — anticipated sea-level rise would render the commute artery as it currently is underwater in a hundred years — and the envisioned causeway will take decades to fund and construct. Dodd deserves applause for authoring a bill and finally kick-starting what stakeholders have for years been calling for.

Still, the idea of dinging long-suffering commuters between Sonoma Valley and Solano County several extra dollars a week doesn’t sit entirely well. (A specific toll amount is yet to be determined — but the legislation would place one side of the toll boundary at Sears Point, letting all the Marin County residents who commute to the valley, and vice versa, off the hook.)

Many of those commuters between Solano County and Sears Point are lower-income earners living in more affordable communities like Vallejo and Fairfield who drive into Sonoma and Marin where the jobs are. It’s a situation created not by choice but by income inequality — and it’s the definition of regressive taxation to weight the financial burden of paying for the road onto them.

But here’s an idea: With the advancements in tolling technology in recent years — what would prevent a system from identifying a car’s vehicle identification number and levying tolls on a sliding scale based on the Kelley Blue Book value of the car? FasTrak instantly identifies a vehicle’s transponder; surely a similar method could be devised to identify VIN numbers. Maybe a 2020 Tesla pays a $3 toll, a 2014 Prius, $2 and a 2007 Hyundai, $1.

While surely some penny-pinching Daddy Warbucks would commandeer his teenager’s junker to save a few bucks, it’s more likely the tolling would line up somewhat equitably according to income, helping ensure neither the highway — nor low-paid workers — winds up under water in the coming years.

Jason Walsh is editor of the Sonoma Index-Tribune. Email him at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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