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Toll road proposed on Highway 37

In the 1920s and ’30s, Highway 37 was a private toll road connecting Novato and Vallejo along the north shore of San Pablo Bay.

Jake Mackenzie, a Rohnert Park city councilman and North Bay transportation buff, has an original Highway 37 ?toll ticket showing the price, ?35 cents, to drive your Model T or Cabriolet down the gravel road owned by the Sears Point Toll Road Co.

The state in 1938 purchased the right-of-way and added the route to the state highway system, but a massive budget shortfall could prompt a return of the toll collector.

“You can be assured that this toll will be greater than 35 cents,” Mackenzie said.

Faced with a multibillion-dollar price tag to ease congestion on Highway 37 and protect the critical North Bay artery from rising sea levels, State Sen. Bill Dodd on Friday proposed turning the route into a toll road.

Flanked by North Bay transportation, business and environmental leaders on a bluff at Sonoma Raceway overlooking Highway 37, Dodd, a Napa Democrat, introduced legislation he authored that would allow the state to immediately collect tolls from motorists between Sears Point and Mare Island.

Dodd said the bill, if passed and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, would kick-start fixes for the vital corridor that sees 40,000 vehicles per day.

“The time is now to improve this essential artery that connects us to jobs and supports our economy,” Dodd said. “If we don’t act, increased traffic and sea level rise will make an already bad situation simply unpassable. Without a dedicated revenue source, the problem won’t be fixed in many of our lifetimes.”

Details, including the amount of the toll, the means of collecting the money and projects it will fund, will be determined at future public meetings, Dodd said. A $5 to $6 toll could generate up to $650 million over 20 years, Dodd said, which could be borrowed up front and used to attract state and federal funding to remake the highway.

The measure has the support of the business community, said Cynthia Murray, president of the North Bay Leadership Council. A remade Highway 37 will help move goods and workers across the North Bay, she said.

But a taxpayer group called the potential toll a “regressive tax” that would hit the pocketbooks of working-class wage earners who commute from Solano County to jobs in Sonoma and Marin counties. David Wolfe, legislative director for the Sacramento-based Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said the group doesn’t oppose toll roads as long as they run parallel to an established route to give commuters a free option.

“To the extent that a toll road is built in California, it needs to be optional,” he said. “With Highway 37, you don’t have that option. It strikes me as a very regressive tax for Solano County residents who commute to work.”

Some estimates put the total cost of Highway 37 improvements at $4 billion for the entire 21-mile road that connects Highway 101 and Highway 80 through Marin, Sonoma and Solano counties. Projects include widening the highway to four lanes and elevating it on a causeway above the rising San Pablo Bay waters.

Officials estimate sea level rise will submerge Highway 37 within 30 years if no action is taken.

“We recognize that the challenges of severe traffic congestion from growing population and seasonal flooding that currently plague Highway 37 will be dramatically magnified by sea level rise, and a solution is required,” said Eamon O’Byrne, executive director of Sonoma Land Trust, which manages wetlands adjacent to the proposed toll road project.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, chairman of a four-county committee focused on Highway 37 improvements, said a dedicated funding source from a toll would expedite work on the corridor.

“While I am proud that we have made some steps, this legislation is a giant leap forward,” he said. “It changes the game.”

North Bay transportation officials have applied for state funding for several preliminary projects along Highway 37, said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. Planning and environmental work is underway through a grant from SB1, the state gas tax increase.

The California Transportation Commission in June could award the North Bay $30 million in SB1 funds to build a new roundabout at the junction of Highway 37 and Highway 121 near Sonoma Raceway, Smith said. She acknowledged that commuters may not like paying a toll, but she said a “user fee” is the only way to fund all of the projects.

“Funding major infrastructure takes a lot of revenue,” she said. “That’s how we do large infrastructure. We need to look under every rock. If we want to use this corridor, we need to pay for it.”

Highway 37 is also slated to receive $100 million from Regional Measure 3, the Bay Area bridge toll increase that voters approved in 2018. Those funds, though, are on hold while a lawsuit is pending at the state appellate court.

The Howard Jarvis group sued, saying the measure amounted to a tax increase since it proposed spending bridge tolls on projects other than bridge maintenance and should have required a two-thirds vote of approval.

Dodd said the Highway 37 toll could be collected by the Bay Area Infrastructure Financing Authority, which uses FasTrak scanners mounted on drivers’ dashboards to collect tolls on Bay Area express lanes.

Dodd’s bill is not the first recent proposal to finance Highway 37 improvements by charging tolls. In 2015, a group of private builders proposed a public-private partnership that would transfer the state highway to private hands and allow a Foster City-based consortium of businesses to charge tolls, which would pay for construction and to restore bay wetlands.

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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