Toll Lanes for Highway 37?

by Steve Birdlebough, Redwood Chapter Transportation Chair

Highway 37, where it crosses the marshlands between Vallejo and Novato, is overcrowded during rush hours and threatened by rising sea levels. During the decades to come, the road is expected to be flooded more frequently by high tides and atmospheric rivers. It needs to be lifted onto a causeway.

Nevertheless, State and regional agencies are moving forward with a plan to spend an estimated $430 million to build two new toll lanes on the shoulders of nine miles of the 21-mile road. The plan calls for the existing 2-lane roadway from Mare Island to Sears Point to be converted to high occupancy vehicle lanes.

Afternoon traffic backups between the Highway 101 Interchange and Highway 121 may be temporarily reduced by the new lane. However, the morning traffic backups are likely to move from Mare Island toward the Novato Creek Bridge, where they will add to the existing “bottleneck” at the Highway 101 interchange.

The present congestion is due primarily to differences in housing costs. It costs about half as much to rent or own a house in Solano County as in Marin County. Until ample low-income housing is constructed in Marin and Sonoma Counties, the present traffic conditions are likely to continue regardless of the width of the highway. It is well known that traffic expands to fill the available pavement.

All of this is contrary to the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) plan for reductions in driving that are needed to deal with the climate crisis. The plan calls for a 25% reduction by the year 2030 and a 30% reduction by 2045.

For nearly a decade, the Sierra Club has participated in the effort to develop an environmentally sound and equitable plan to cope with the challenges to SR-37.
Environmental Issues:

The proposed toll would fund a nine-mile road-widening project that would result in more driving, but without any allocation of funds to establish and operate an express bus service. As was described during the recent joint meeting of the California Transportation Commission and CARB, California's path to carbon neutrality requires us all to drive less. The ARB Scoping Plan Calls for an average 25% reduction in driving by the year 2030, and a 30% reduction by 2045. (ARB Scoping Plan, Appendix E, p. 4*). Any road-widening should be limited to what’s required to give express bus service and carpools priority in reaching the 2-lane roadway, where most traffic moves at speeds of 35-MPH to 60-MPH.

The Sierra Club is also concerned that an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in a project that fails to elevate the roadway would constrain needed water flows and transfers of sediment into the marshes north of the highway. It is unnecessary to widen more than a few miles of the highway at the western end of the 2-lane road segment to give priority to buses and car-pools. Extension of the eastbound lane-drop could be on an elevated bridge/causeway that would reduce the overall cost of adapting SR-37 to sea level rise.
Continued Congestion:

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission acknowledges that an added traffic lane would invite more people to make long commutes. Figure 2 of the application for tolling authority also shows that the Project would only move the “bottleneck” for most of the morning traffic from Mare Island to the 101 Interchange. Only the vehicles headed for SR-121 and Lakeville Highway would see reductions in delay. The estimated value of time-savings for commuters fails to recognize this factor and does not justify an expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Preservation of most of the single lane road in each direction, with priority for express buses and carpools, could reduce the number of single-occupant vehicles on the highway. An extension of the east-bound lane drop to Solano Creek would suffice to minimize the afternoon congestion. See the 2015 “Induced Demand Fact Sheet” and the Sierra Club’s " SR-37 Restructuring Statement"