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Endorsement: Measure 3 a bridge to traffic solutions

On June 5, Sonoma Valley voters will be asked to consider Regional Measure 3, a nine-county initiative that would increase tolls on state-owned bridges by $3 over six years in an effort to raise a whopping $4.45 billion to alleviate traffic congestion throughout the Bay Area.

The toll hikes would affect seven bridges and occur in $1 increments in 2019, 2022 and 2025, bringing tolls from $5 to $8 by the end of the six years.

The measure, which would need a simple majority to pass, was placed on the ballot by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Bay Area Toll Authority and will be the first time Sonoma County is included in such a Toll Authority initiative, having been left out of the MTC’s regional measures 1 and 2 in 1988 and 2004, respectively.

And the timing couldn’t be better for Sonoma voters to join the fold. Nor could the deal Sonoma gets if this is approved.

That’s because Measure 3 would earmark $100 million for near-term and long-term improvements to mitigate flooding and traffic on Highway 37 – the state route straddling the east side of the Valley that promises to be a current and future bane to Sonoma travelers if expansive – and expensive – revisions aren’t undertaken.

Highway 37 made Bay Area headlines in the winter of 2018 when levies along a mile-long stretch near Novato failed during a January storm, causing Novato Creek to overflow and forcing the highway’s closure for nearly two weeks, while emergency road crews hustled to raise the road above the flood plain. It caused two-mile traffic snarls, as commuters from Sonoma and Napa were re-routed through Novato just to get to Highway 101.

But while last year’s traffic congestion brought the insecurity of such an aging levy system separating a gradually sinking Highway 37 from the San Pablo Bay to everyone’s immediate attention – the more troubling prospects for Highway 37 could be decades in the future. Because, with the amount of sea-level rise predicted by scientists over the course of the next century, our grandchildren could be commuting Highway 37 by either submarine or ferry, if something isn’t done.

An ambitious plan to restructure Highway 37 into a multi-lane causeway – possibly a toll road, and possibly leased for operations to a private causeway-building company – was floated in 2016, but the proposal hasn’t risen beyond the discussion level, as not many have demonstrated a willingness to pay for the estimated $1 billion-plus project, and even less so to privatize it. Caltrans estimates that launching a Highway 37 project with the funding currently in place could take 70 years.

A $100 million kickstarter from Measure 3 would at least pave the way for some paving of the way, in a manner of speaking, on the beleaguered but vital artery from Sonoma County to Solano, the Sacramento Valley and virtually the entire north-east side of the state on through to Lake Tahoe.

While the measure’s $100 million for Highway 37 would certainly be ample, even larger amounts would go toward alleviating traffic in San Francisco by beefing up BART, Muni and Caltrain services (about $965 million total), directly connecting Highway 101 in Marin to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge ($210 million) and widening the Marin-Sonoma narrows in Novato ($120 million), as well as about 30 other projects with various price tags throughout the Bay Area.

But while the funds apportioned for the single benefiting highway that grazes the Sonoma Valley at Sears Point fall somewhere near the middle of the list of Measure 3 recipients, there’s no getting around the fact that the tolls would be paid mostly by commuters from elsewhere in the Bay Area.

The seven bridges in play for the toll hikes are the Antioch, Benicia-Martinez, Carquinez, Dumbarton, Richmond-San Rafael, Oakland Bay and San Mateo-Hayward bridges. (The Golden Gate has had its own separate bridge district since 1929, eight years before it even opened.)

That makes Benicia-Martinez and Richmond-San Rafael the closest bridges to Sonoma Valley voters. And, while we have our share of commuters to and from the East Bay, it’s a far cry from what, for instance, Contra Costa and Alameda counties will contribute.

The MTC estimates that, over the next 25 years, Sonoma County as a whole would comprise 2 percent of the state bridge crossings, while receiving 3 percent of the new bridge toll revenue.

While Sonoma Valley-specific numbers aren’t available, the benefits the Valley could see from Highway 37 upgrades would almost certainly outweigh the anticipated costs.

And regardless of Sonoma’s return on investment, the cumulative impact Measure 3 transportation improvements have on traffic throughout the Bay Area – in time saved, productivity increased, greenhouse-gas emissions decreased and the simple quality of life improvement by not having to sit in traffic – would be enough to justify the first increase in state-bridge tolls since 2010.

Staunch opposition to the measure hasn’t surfaced, though the citizen-led Bay Area Transportation Working Group has voiced skepticism about its perceived lack of assurances from MTC that the funds would be administered as promised. And the Napa County Taxpayers Association worries that the toll increase would negatively affect wine country tourism for visitors who have to cross multiple bridges to get here.

The bottom line: A December poll by the MTC found that 85 percent of Bay Area residents feel traffic is growing worse and is now the second biggest regional concern after housing.

We recommend a “yes” on Regional Measure 3.

Jason Walsh, editor

John Burns, publisher