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A plan to fund Highway 37 fixes

There was a time before the coronavirus pandemic dominated our thoughts and there will be a time when this is all behind us. One major piece of our future recovery should be an investment in infrastructure, which will provide jobs in the short term and help us move people and goods in the long term.

In the North Bay, Highway 37 is perhaps the most important route that could benefit from an influx of new investment.

Before the pandemic, State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, introduced a bill that would make Highway 37 a toll road to help pay for the estimated billions in improvements that are needed to relieve traffic and buffer the route from rising sea levels.

It is an interesting idea from a historical perspective and it could spur much needed investment in the highway at the top of the San Pablo Bay from Novato to Vallejo. Historically, Highway 37 was a private toll road when it first opened in the 1920s before it was converted into a state highway.

While the original toll was 35 cents, today’s drivers can expect to pay more like $5 or $6 if the bill passes and Gov. Gavin Newsom signs it. For many commuters who live in the East Bay and drive to jobs in Sonoma and Marin counties, this would be a prohibitive cost with no alternative.

Many toll roads or toll express lanes run parallel to existing freeways, so drivers can chose to either pay to avoid traffic or stay on the existing route. But Highway 37 offers no viable alternative, and the toll is proposed on the existing two-lane stretch from Sears Point to Mare Island.

There is a solution, though, that would give the state the revenue from a toll on Highway 37 while also giving motorists a free option. While future improvements would raise the route on a levee or causeway for four lanes, studies show the existing right of way could accommodate a third lane.

With limited funding, Caltrans could restripe the route for three lanes and add a movable median barrier like the one on the Golden Gate Bridge. This would change the configuration of Highway 37 based on the time of day - say two west bound lanes in the morning and two east bound lanes in the evening.

The toll could then be charged on one of the two single direction lanes, leaving one free lane for those who don’t want to pay. It would be an equitable way to raise revenue from Highway 37 to pay for future improvements while not regressively taxing low income commuters.

The total cost of improvements for Highway 37 could be $2 to $4 billion, so a toll alone will not get us there. But, in the same way that local sales tax revenue attracts state and federal money for countywide transportation projects, a toll on Highway 37 could help attract more funding.

As far as future funding goes, there has been talk for the past three years of a $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill, but there has never been the political will in Washington to even start on it.

But, perhaps one of the only good things to come out of the coronavirus crisis has been a willingness in Congress to spend to get the economy back to full strength. Washington is now discussing an infrastructure package as part of the next stimulus bill.

If Congress passes such a bill, that would mean billions of infrastructure dollars for which state and local governments to compete. At the same time, if Highway 37 had a local funding source like a toll to provide matching funds, it would be an attractive project for federal dollars.

Without any new funding, Caltrans has estimated it would get around to improving Highway 37 in about 80 years, by which time the whole route is expected to be under water. With additional funding from a toll matched with new federal funding and other sources, we can finally make Highway 37 into a modern route within one generation.

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