Alexander Hamilton, Nelson Mandela, Frederick Douglass and Edgar Allan Poe all have one thing in common; they were orphans. In fact, history is full of orphans who have gone on to achieve great things in life.
Highway 37, a vital east-west link across the top of the Bay Area, has been called an “orphan highway” by local government officials. A secondary transportation concern for all of the counties it traverses, it has been left to languish, unfunded, as rising sea levels threaten to swamp the roadway, unless the suffocating traffic chokes it first.
But after years of neglect in the highway orphanage, there is hope that adoptive parents, in the form of toll-payers, could salvage the life of the highway and restore it to greatness.
In its 21-mile journey between Highway 101 and Interstate 80, Highway 37 passes through Marin, Sonoma and Solano counties and provides access to Napa County. The problem, though, is that each of these counties have first-born children that get all of the love and attention; Interstate 80 for Solano, Highway 29 for Napa, Highway 101 for Sonoma and Interstate 580 for Marin.
Transportation officials are beginning to acknowledge that, without a new revenue stream, a fix for Highway 37 is generations away. Meeting earlier this month at a town hall forum, officials said a toll is likely necessary to pay for improvements that could cost between $1 and $4 billion. Work would include raising much of the road on an elevated causeway above projected sea level rise, and widening the eastern portion to four lanes to accommodate increased traffic.
Motorists should get prepared to pay a toll to use Highway 37. While there will likely be some grumbling, the idea of a toll road should not be too controversial. After all, every significant east-west route over water in the Bay Area — the Richmond Bridge, Bay Bridge, San Mateo Bridge and Dumbarton Bridge — all carry a toll. Once Highway 37 is an elevated causeway above the rising bay waters, it will resemble any other bridge.
Having a guaranteed revenue stream like a toll allows transportation officials to borrow on future revenues and expedite the necessary highway work. A public-private partnership could expedite that work even faster.
United Bridge Partners, a private infrastructure company, has proposed to rebuild the highway, provided the state turn over the right of way to the company so that it can collect the toll and make a profit. Officials should examine that deal closely to see if it best suits the public, or if the better option is for Caltrans to retain the highway and authorize a public toll authority to collect the toll, which is the situation on the Bay Area’s other bridges.
Either way, fixing Highway 37 will require some sort of a toll. Transportation officials should come up with a plan soon before traffic and sea level rise render the highway useless. Highway 37 should be an orphan no longer.