State Commission approves Highway 37 toll proposal

Traffic on an elevated portion of State Route 37.
Karl Nielsen

The California Transportation Commission (CTC) today approved the application submitted earlier this spring by MTC's Bay Area Infrastructure Financing Authority (BAIFA) affiliate for authorization to operate a toll facility on the critical and frequently congested stretch of Highway 37 between Mare Island in Vallejo and the junction with State Route 121 at Sears Point in Sonoma County. 

The CTC's unanimous approval of the tolling proposal marks a crucial milestone in the effort by MTC, Caltrans, North Bay county transportation agencies and other partners to implement both near-term and long-term improvements to Highway 37 corridor. The 21-mile route currently has just one lane in each direction along the 10-mile segment between Mare Island and Sears Point. Congestion routinely adds 30 minutes each day to the westbound morning commute between Solano and Marin counties, and as much as 80 minutes to the eastbound commutes in the afternoon and evening.

Toll dollars will help finance an estimated $430 million near-term project to convert the existing lane in each direction between Mare Island and Sears Point to a carpool lane, which will be toll-free for qualifying vehicles; and to convert the existing shoulders to new traffic lanes, which will be tolled electronically. Toll collection will not begin until the new lanes are open for traffic, until bus service between Vallejo and Marin County is established, and until a toll discount program for lower-income drivers is in place. Before it approval of the toll application, the CTC approved two amendments to the motion: a requirement that MTC consider discounts based on regional income levels as well as the federal poverty level; and a recommendation to CTC staff that it update the state Commission's guidelines for conducting toll hearings.

MTC Executive Director Andrew Fremier noted during his presentation at the CTC meeting that the current schedule for the Sears Point-Mare Island Improvement Project calls for construction to begin in 2025, with completion slated for 2027. Work will include replacing the existing bridge over Tolay Creek near Sears Point with a much longer bridge that will promote restoration of the San Pablo Baylands by allowing more water to flow into and out of the creek channel as well as enhancements to stop deterioration of critical marshlands near Mare Island.

Toll rates for regular two-axle cars and trucks traveling Highway 37 between Mare Island and Sears Point are expected to be similar to those on the Bay Area's state-owned toll bridges, which will rise to $8 from the current $7 in 2025. Tolls on Highway 37 may be collected in both the eastbound and westbound directions, in which case the toll rates would be set at just half those on the state-owned bridges, where tolls are collected only in one direction.

Toll money also will serve as a local match to help secure other regional, state and federal dollars needed for the long-term transformation of the entire Highway 37 corridor between Interstate 80 in Vallejo and U.S. 101 in Novato. Caltrans late last year identified an elevated, four-lane causeway along the existing alignment — with a bicycle and pedestrian path and accommodations for a possible extension of the SMART commuter rail service — as the preferred long-term solution for improving mobility, adapting to rising sea levels and restoring historic baylands. The series of projects needed to execute this comprehensive overhaul is expected to cost at least $6 billion or more and take 10 to 20 years or longer.

MTC's partners in the Resilient 37 program include Caltrans, the Napa Valley Transportation Authority, the Solano Transportation Authority, the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, the Transportation Authority of Marin and the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District (SMART). MTC and Caltrans District 4 early this year entered into a partnership agreement with the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the California Natural Resources Agency, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the California State Transportation Agency that commits the agencies to develop and implement both near- and long-term projects to make Highway 37  resilient to sea-level rise, reduce transportation inequities in the corridor, protect critical marsh and tidal habitats, and incorporate bicycle, pedestrian, transit and carpool options for travelers.

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