LeBaron: History repeats itself with Highway 37 toll road proposal

A consortium of private builders seeks to turn Highway 37 into a toll road. It wouldn’t be the first time. PD columnist Gaye LeBaron shares the history of the traffic-clogged route.|

Representatives of the four counties that come together at Sears Point, where the infamous, hazardous, traffic-clogged Highway 37 goes east to Vallejo or west to Novato, have been meeting these past months to talk about making it a toll road.

Who says history doesn’t repeat itself?

Eagerness to find a faster way to the Sacramento Valley has taken us down this road before. That 10-mile ribbon of highway between ditches has already been a toll road.

The current plan is, as a recent PD editorial termed it, “a back-to-the future” proposal. A policy committee was formed last fall with the intent of finding a solution to the traffic congestion on the narrow road bordered by marshland and bay water, a route that could be impacted in the future by global warming and the resulting rise of sea levels.

In May the representatives from Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties were presented with an unsolicited proposal from United Bridge Partnership, a consortium that includes FIGG Bridge, a construction company specializing in “top-down” spans - roads like I-80’s Yolo Causeway into Sacramento - and American Infrastructure, a company that finances adventures such as this.

In an important next step, the group will decide if this plan is feasible.


THE FIRST TIME a motorist paid a toll to drive that highway was in 1928. There was a celebration at the opening. It was a graded and graveled road (160 feet wide) following the wagon routes that wandered among the man-made “islands” to Vallejo and the highways beyond. It had been a long time coming.

In 1925, a year after the Redwood Highway (now Highway 101) opened with a grand flourish, a group of businessmen interested in a shortcut from the new highway to the Sacramento Valley formed a company called the Sears Point Toll Road Inc.

The goal was to shorten the trip.

The money to accomplish this came from a company called Golden Gate Ferries, an early transport system with no connection to the future famous bridge and its ferry system.

It took three years to build the 10 miles. There were three drawbridges - at Tolay Creek, Sonoma Creek and the Napa River at Mare Island. The toll was 35 cents, paid willingly by “autoists,” as the drivers were known. The ceremonial opening of the toll road in July 1928 was a grand occasion, attended by dignitaries from the four counties that shared sections of the road. Exchange Bank president and Chamber of Commerce leader Frank Doyle led the Sonoma County delegation and kept careful notes.

The trip to Vallejo, by way of Napa, was 59.5 miles. Coming home over the toll road through Sonoma was 44 miles. The new road saved 15.5 miles for Doyle and travelers heading this way.


THE TOLL ROAD lasted just 10 years. Northern California, like the rest of the nation, had motorized. As traffic increased, so did the state’s participation.

By the mid-1930s, it was clear that the State Division of Highways would eventually add the toll road to its free, tax-financed highway system.

Travelers from the valley needed a shortcut to the long-awaited bridge across the Golden Gate. The old toll road, improved to state standards, would provide it.


THE TRANSPORTATION history of that corner of our county is quintessential man-vs.-nature stuff. The “islands” were created, first with picks and shovels, later dredges, from an 1870s law offering swampland for a dollar an acre if the buyer agreed to build levees.

The name of the point - more widely known these days for speed than geography since the Sears Point Raceway brought us NASCAR - comes from Franklin Sears, who bought the tract of land reaching south to the bay with money from the Gold Rush.

A point of history: Franklin’s brother John, a blacksmith who was in the pueblo of Sonoma in 1846, supplied the “white domestic” (a cotton flannel material) from his wife’s sewing basket to make the original Bear Flag.

The islands have names as well - like Tubbs and Jones and Skaggs, each with its own story. The dredged bay soil became hay fields as well as pasture for livestock and supported other endeavors, from duck clubs and fishing shacks to government installations.

Now, with the fate of the planet on our minds, not only is the toll road on its way back, but the tidelands are as well, with recent purposeful breaches of the levees allowing the bay, in time, to regain its original borders.


THE PROSPECT of an artistic causeway rising out of the marshes gave me an opportunity to touch bases with my friend Newton Dal Poggetto.

“Going on” 94, he is a Sonoma native, a lawyer, former judge, writer of mystery novels - one of those living links with the past whose memory serves us all.

Newt knows the territory. His father hunted and fished every damp inch of those marshes and he spent his boyhood tramping along right beside him.

Newt recalled, “He used to take me fishing for striped bass in the slough that divides Sonoma Creek and Hudeman Slough. I was young, under 10.

“We’d go to the Sonoma Creek Bridge, where Mister Farrell was the toll taker. He and my father would talk and I’d walk over the bridge to ‘Dirty Dick’s’ little wharf.

(This was a familiar name for Richard “Fresh Air” Jansen, a hermit sort who was known for 1) not bathing and 2) carving the most beautiful duck decoys to be found anywhere. His proper name was later given to one of the bridges on the highway.)

“I’d rent a row boat from him for 50 cents and row down and pick up my father and we’d go fishing. When I was finished, I’d take the boat back and hike a half-mile or so back. My father would still be fishing.”

Newt was one several people interviewed about the “Baylands,” which is the poetic as well as descriptive term chosen by historical ecologist Arthur Dawson. Dawson’s Glen Ellen firm, Baseline Consulting, prepared the Oral History Project on the area, funded by the Sonoma Land Trust and the Sonoma Resource Conservation District.

“There weren’t many people down there,” Dal Poggetto told Dawson, “It’s a big blank. Even in Wingo (the cluster of small houses and fishing shacks at the north end of the marshes) there wasn’t really anybody who lived there permanently except the bridge tender.”


DESPITE THE FACT that there are lots of roads connecting there - 116, 121, as well as 37 - it is still a “ big blank” or something close to it on the agendas of local government. Not one of the four counties has it as a top priority. For Sonoma, that’s the widening of the 101 “Narrows.” For Napa, it’s Highway 29. Marin and Solano have other projects.

But people who have watched the road change through the years - improve, but not enough - wonder what comes next. Will the purposeful breach of levees cause road-closing floods?

Norm Yenni, whose family has farmed Tubbs Island for a half century, voiced his trepidation to Dawson:

“That’s the first place the water will come over the levee. Because Highway 37 IS the levee.”

So, while it may not be a priority, it is certainly a concern.

How badly do today’s “autoists” want to see the traffic flow freely across the Baylands? Enough to pay a toll? Again?

We wait and watch with interest.

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