One of the most congested Bay Area highways is set to see huge changes — and a toll

In an article titled, “One of the most congested Bay Area highways is set to see huge changes — and a toll,” written by Jessica Flores. She says, “Drivers on Highway 37, the narrow and chronically congested commuter route through fragile North Bay wetlands, could see grinding rush-hour trips between I-80 in Solano County and Highway 101 in Marin County cut at least in half by a project that will widen a key stretch within just a few years.

But the plan includes adding a toll along the expanded part of the 21-mile-long highway to help cover the $430 million price tag — a detail that prompted anger and concern this week from residents who say those who will bear the brunt are those who can least afford it.

The project would expand the 7-mile, two-lane stretch of Highway 37 between Mare Island in Solano County and Sears Point in Sonoma County to four lanes, with one toll lane and one toll-free carpool lane planned in each direction.

The project is in the final design and permitting phase, with construction expected to begin in 2025, officials said. The California Department of Transportation and the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission are applying to the California Transportation Commission to operate electronic toll stations at each end of the 7-mile stretch.

At a public meeting Monday in Vallejo hosted by the CTC, agency officials said the toll will help pay not only for construction, but for improvements that will address sea level rise and congestion concerns.

Highway 37 is among the most vulnerable major roadways in the Bay Area, with Caltrans predicting portions of it could be “completely inundated” by 2050. Storms in recent years have periodically flooded the highway, forcing weeks-long closures.

But many residents at the meeting, which was also streamed over Zoom, said the toll would be an additional financial burden for people who travel from Vallejo to Marin and Sonoma counties, where there are higher-paying jobs. The median household income in Vallejo is $78,243, according to census data, compared with $108,000 in Novato at the western terminus of the highway.

According to transportation officials, of the 40,000-plus trips made daily on Highway 37, 40% are by low-income individuals and 28% are by people of color.

“This will create hardship on the people who commute” on top of high gas prices, gas taxes and other expenses, a speaker said during the meeting. “It’s the responsibility of government — federal, local, state — to provide for our roads (and) not put it on the backs of the commuters who are already paying a lot.”

Officials say the project will benefit all commuters by reducing congestion and travel times, increasing access to jobs and boosting the economy in the Mare Island area.

According to the CTC, the project would cut commute times dramatically: The eastbound evening commute would shrink from 100 minutes to 26 minutes, and westbound morning commute times from 60 to 30 minutes.

New bus transit options would be offered from Vallejo to San Rafael, and low-income households would be offered toll discounts, planners say. They add that trail connections and improvements along the highway would benefit the public.

The toll program, expected to generate $100 million to help cover the project’s cost, is being managed by the Bay Area Infrastructure Financing Authority, an arm of the MTC.

“Tolling does help finance the infrastructure investments that we’re making today,” said Andrew Fremier, executive director of MTC, during the meeting. “It will be used … to match with state and federal grants that we need to complete this particular important project.”

A specific toll rate has not been revealed yet, but Fremier said it would be consistent with toll bridges in the Bay Area, most of which cost $7 to cross.

Officials said toll collection would not begin until the new lanes and a bus service between Vallejo and Marin County are added and the low-income toll discount program is in place.

Public comments from the meeting Monday will be included in staff recommendations that the CTC will consider in May when it meets to discuss and vote on the toll application, said Paul Golaszewski, the agency’s deputy director of legislation and finance.

Drafting of the Highway 37 project got under way in 2020, and the environmental impact process has been completed, with Caltrans signing off on the impact report in February, according to John Goodwin, assistant communication director for the MTC and Bay Area Toll Authority.  After design and permitting are completed, construction is expected to start in 2025 and wrap up in in 2027, documents show.

The project will also replace the existing bridge over Tolay Creek near Sears Point with a much longer bridge that helps restore the San Pablo Baylands by increasing water flow into and out of the creek channel, according to agency documents. Work will also be done to stop deterioration of the area known as Strip Marsh East near Mare Island.

Caltrans is looking at a much larger project as the longer-term answer to traffic congestion, rising waters and bayland restoration: an elevated four-lane causeway along the existing path of Highway 37.

Such a project, which could take two decades or more and cost at least $6 billion, would also include a bicycle and pedestrian path and make provisions to eventually add SMART commuter rail services, Goodwin told The Chronicle.

“Tolling almost certainly would be part of any kind of funding package for this long-term transformation and almost certainly would include tolling the entire route from Novato to the I-80 interchange in Vallejo,” Goodwin said.

At the meeting Monday, a few people expressed support for the toll plan in the current project.

“As it becomes a bridge, it should be treated like other bridges, and we really want to make sure that we have a functioning highway before it goes underwater,” said Cynthia Murray, CEO of North Bay Leadership Council, a group that represents employers.”