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‘Orphan highway’ gets needed attention at Sonoma forum

The future of State Route 37 got a thorough examination from a panel of local, state and federal elected officials at a community forum in Sonoma Wednesday night at the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building.

Several of the panelists referred to the 21-mile linkage between Novato and Vallejo as “an orphan in the state highway system,” but they were ready to discuss the issues and obstacles that confront the oft-traveled, oft-congested roadway.

“We all got a peek at what the future holds this winter when a portion of Highway 37 in Novato was closed for nearly a week on two occasions in February,” said John Burns, publisher of the Sonoma Index-Tribune, in introducing the panel. “Something needs to change.”

Only a single lane in each direction for much of its length, the highway is plagued by more traffic than it can comfortably handle, and its bay-side route is imminently threatened by rising sea levels. Although high tides, heavy rainfall and failed levies were blamed for the extended flooding of SR-37 at Novato this winter, sea level increases projected to go as high as six feet by the end of the century are seen as an inevitable threat.

An elevated highway, more lanes, alternate routes and even a privately-funded toll causeway were on the table during the 90-minute town hall, sponsored by Sonoma Media Investments, which owns the I-T.

Many of the seven-member panel had been on the same stage a month earlier, when Supervisor Susan Gorin sponsored her first town all on the subject.

But this time the panel included a federal legislator: Rep. Mike Thompson, through whose congressional district the entire highway runs. He was the first to get a question from co-host Paul Gullixson, editorial page editor of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

“Is there a chance some money from that $1 trillion infrastructure bill we keep hearing about might be found to help with Highway 37?” Gullixson asked Thompson.

“The federal part of this problem is going to be interesting,” said the nine-term congressman. “The current president has said he’d like to see a trillion dollars in infrastructure spending. I’d like to see a trillion dollars in infrastructure spending, too. But federal funds go to the states, and it’s up to the states to allocate them for specific projects.”

Also on the panel were two Sonoma County supervisors who are members of the four-county Highway 37 Policy Committee – 1st District Supervisor Gorin and 2nd District Supervisor David Rabbitt. Jake Mackenzie – currently the mayor of Rohnert Park who also serves on the SMART board of directors, the regional Metropolitan Transit Authority, and the Bay Area Toll Authority – probably wore more hats than anyone else on the panel.

He also stood out by his green jacket, which he referenced before the meeting when he said, “I’m wearing my SMART jacket tonight.”

“Is it working?” asked state Sen. Bill Dodd, another elected official on the panel.

Part of the difficulty in dealing with Highway 37’s problems may be trans-jurisdictional oversight: it passes through three counties, Marin, Sonoma and Solano, and provides significant access into Napa. For none of those counties is it their top roads priority – which led panel members to the “orphan” analogy.

It has also been low on the list of Caltrans responsibilities, showing on the state transportation agency’s schedule for repair as far away as 2088, said Burns in his introduction. Still, even Dan McElhinney, Caltrans’ chief deputy district director for the Bay Area, admitted that the mid-winter flooding of the highway at its Novato intersection “raised the visibility” of the highway at all levels of government.

Nonetheless, any SR-37 improvement has to compete for dollars and attention with other more pressing highway projects in each of its affected counties.

Suzanne Smith, director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, said at some point we have to look at a toll of some kind unless we’re willing to wait until 2088.

The primary advantage of a toll-based model was in financial flexibility, said McElhinney. “Selling bonds against future toll revenue brings in money for ongoing construction,” a more dynamic and flexible model for funding large projects.

Much attention was given to a plan to privatize the state route by building a privately-financed causeway and charging tolls to fund the project. The proposal by United Bridge Partners, a Denver-based joint venture, has gained diverse support and many on the panel gave credit to UBC for focusing attention on the corridor.

“What UBC’s proposal exposed was a great need that all of us realized already, but demonstrated that there are business models that can be put to use,” said Assemblymember Marc Levine of Marin. “We need to do it quickly and we need to do it right.”

But there was significant opposition to the idea of the privatization of what is now a public asset. Perhaps that’s to be expected – the panel was comprised almost entirely of public officials, and asking them to endorse a privately-financed plan was a stretch.

Some aspects of the UBP plan were lauded, and the subject of a toll-based highway was discussed at some length – whether treated as a “toll bridge” like the Golden Gate or a number of others in the Bay Area, which have a single toll fee for their length; or a “toll road” with a sliding scale of feeds depending on how far a vehicle travels.

Gorin, in whose district the forum was held, interjected her concern that the “glib talk” about tolls overlooked their disproportionate effect on low-income workers, many of whom commute to Sonoma and Marin jobs from lower-income housing in Solano County.

“They may not be able to pay whatever toll we’re talking about,” she said, drawing the forum’s only significant applause from the audience.

After the panel discussion, and a few questions from the audience, each of the eight officials gave a one-minute summary of their position – and they all in one way or another committed to doing what they could, in their respective positions, to find a solution for the orphan highway, State Route 37.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.