Bay Area voters this June hold the key to unlocking $100 million in new funding to help rebuild the North Bay’s traffic-plagued Highway 37, which each weekday carries enough motorists to fill a capacity crowd at San Francisco’s AT&T Park.
On weekends with the Sonoma Raceway in action at Sears Point, legions more traverse the 21-mile route from Vallejo to Novato, and backups extend for miles.
“Ultimately it’s arithmetic,” said Steve Page, who as Sonoma Raceway’s president and general manager has long lobbied for a solution to the daily logjams near the motorsports complex. “Two lanes go down to one lane (at Highway 121), and that’s the squeeze point.”
The new highway funding would come through approval of Regional Measure 3 in the nine-county Bay Area, which would raise tolls on the region’s state-owned bridges by $1. But it would cover only a small fraction of the estimated $1 billion to $4 billion cost of rebuilding a modern Highway 37 that could accommodate traffic and withstand the rising sea levels along the edge of San Pablo Bay.
Caltrans has said conventional state and highway funding won’t allow a Highway 37 project to get underway for another 70 years.
Alternatives include future tolls on the highway and even turning over a stretch of the troubled route to a private operator.
Meanwhile, a recent UC Davis review projects climate change could raise sea levels in San Pablo Bay to a point of regularly overtaking the roadway with water by 2050, and full submersion by 2100.
Members of the state highway’s policy group say they recognize the urgency. After years of meetings, including pitches to privatize the road and allow the new owner to charge tolls to drive it, local leaders believe they’re headed in the right direction for developing a long-term plan.
“Really it’s a state responsibility, but the reality is they’re not doing anything,” said David Rabbitt, Sonoma County supervisor and chairman of the Highway 37 policy committee. “It’s not on their list. So it means what are we going to do?”
To start, they’re asking Bay Area voters to agree to the bridge toll hikes via Regional Measure 3 to raise $4.45 billion to pay for badly needed transportation upgrades and expansions around the region.
Of that total, $100 million would be dedicated to Highway 37 design and environmental analyses, with the rest left for short-term capital improvements.
The SMART train also would benefit from a $40 million shot in the arm from the proposed $1 toll increases, proposed to go into effect in phases in 2019, 2022 and 2025, on all Bay Area bridges except the independently run Golden Gate Bridge. The Highway 101 Narrows project in Sonoma and Marin counties would see an influx of $120 million, and pedestrian and bicycle segments on the San Francisco Bay Trail would receive a $150 million.
At the moment, any overhaul for Highway 37 appears to be a ways out.
A newly released study backed by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission states long-range construction of a bridge or other elevated structure above protected marshlands wouldn’t start until at least 2030, and could be as far out as 2050. A planned completion date is even less clear.
“We believe funding made available under Regional Measure 3, once it passes, gets us off to a good start and then enables us to consider seriously the exact nature of the fix,” said Jake Mackenzie, chairman of the MTC. “These are significant engineering accomplishments that need to be undertaken. In terms of things getting done in a decade instead of half century or more, there’s got to be some means of financing and certainly tolling would fit that particular bill.”