PD Editorial: Highway 37 needs help now

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A headline in Monday’s Press Democrat said, “Agencies partner to fix Highway 37.”

The accompanying article offered some hopeful news for commuters, with the Sonoma County Transportation Authority and other agencies entering a partnership to ease congestion on the heavily traveled route across the northern edge of San Pablo Bay.

Unfortunately, most of those upgrades are years — even decades — away.

A fix is needed now.

There is, of course, the immediate problem: a broken levee that flooded a stretch of Highway 37 west of Lakeville Highway beginning on Friday.

Caltrans warned that this could be another protracted closure — the third in the past 25 months.

For now, flood-related closures are a nuisance.

With rising sea levels, UC researchers say the stretch of Highway 37 between the Petaluma River and Lakeville Highway is at risk of “permanent inundation” by the end of the century.

The highway is the primary commuter and commercial route between Highway 101 and Interstate 80, carrying about 45,000 vehicles a day. There isn’t a convenient alternative.

Highway 37 also is the obvious alternative to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, which was closed earlier this month by falling concrete and may be closed again for repairs.

But the increasing frequency of flooding on the western end of Highway 37 and the daily traffic jams between Novato and Vallejo threaten to disrupt traffic in parts of Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Solano counties — and not in years or decades, but now.

A planned roundabout at the junction of Highways 37 and 121 near Sonoma Raceway should alleviate some of the traffic backups.

So should a reversible lane, similar to those on the Golden Gate Bridge, planned for the two-lane segment between Sears Point and Mare Island.

But those improvements aren’t expected to be complete before 2025.

And, under the current timetable, it will be more than two decades before anything is done to address the threat of permanent flooding due to rising sea levels.

The total cost of upgrades to address congestion and flooding could top $3 billion.

“We need to continue moving forward as quickly as possible on both a short-term fix to alleviate both congestion and closures,” Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said Friday, “but also (a) long-term fix of really making the road more resilient to high water … But it is, of course, a matter of dollars.”

Voters approved a series of toll increases on state-owned Bay Area bridges, beginning with a $1 hike this year, to raise $4.5 billion for regional transportation improvements, including $100 million toward plans for Highway 37.

For now, however, the revenue is subject to a legal challenge from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which contends that the tolls are taxes, rather than user fees, and therefore required a two-thirds majority for approval. Regional Measure 3 received 54 percent of the vote in last June’s election.

More money will be needed for Highway 37 even if the tolls withstand the legal challenge. Transportation planners hope to secure a larger share of bridge tolls. Other possible sources include state gas tax revenue, Sonoma County’s transportation sales tax if it’s renewed or a congressional infrastructure bill. A private developer has proposed converting Highway 37 into a toll road to pay for upgrades.

Whatever approach state and local officials settle on, this vital North Bay highway needs help now.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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