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Jason Walsh: Dark clouds ahead if we don’t make Highway 37 a priority

Up until 1938, the vital commute artery between Sears Point and Vallejo -- now known as Highway 37 -- was owned and operated by a ferry company.

Ironically, if the sea-levels rise as expected in the coming decades, it may have to be operated by a ferry company once again.

That, in a nutshell, was the driving force behind the Sonoma Media Investments-sponsored town hall at the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building on May 10 that brought together several local transportation and elected officials to discuss the highway that, by most accounts, could be a victim of sea-level rise due to climate change in the not-so-distant future. Perhaps in a hundred years, perhaps decades less.

Congressman Mike Thompson, state legislators Bill Dodd and Marc Levine and county Supervisors Susan Gorin and David Rabbitt were joined by Metropolitan Transportation Commission chair Jake Mackenzie and Sonoma County Transportation Authority director Suzanne Smith in a meeting of Highway 37 minds. Index-Tribune publisher John Burns kicked off the town hall with introductions, then Santa Rosa Press Democrat editorial page editor Paul Gullixson pitched questions as to the highway’s future, and the panelists bandied various potential solutions – essentially continuing a discussion about rebuilding it as a privatized toll causeway, a still controversial proposal that is merely in its seedling stages.

The town hall was encouraging from several points – not least among them the willingness of local elected leaders to dedicate several hours of their day to make the forum a priority and continue these early discussions about the future of what is arguably the most beleaguered major thoroughfare in the Bay Area. Not convinced it’s the most beleaguered? Name another two lane sea-level highway that is the only direct link between four North Bay counties that will possibly be under water in 100 years.

Never mind a hundred years – a significant stretch was under water for much of this winter, closed due to flooding from Black Point to Highway 101 in Novato. And, in hindsight, the flooding may have been a good thing – while its rerouting was a major headache to thousands of commuters for several weeks in January and February, the headline-making commuter delays are now seeming like a necessary knock upside the head to North Bay transportation officials who have openly referred to State Route 37 as the “orphan of the state highway system.” Several of the panelists at the May 10 forum fully concede that SR 37 is lower on the priority list than other highways in their respective spheres of influence.

And no one is suggesting it shouldn’t be. Certainly, Highway 101 tops the list, with its own confounding issues of bottlenecking, overuse and age. Still, there’s zero chance our grandchildren will one day have to Fastrack the SS Minnow up the 101. Same can’t be said of Highway 37.

Because by all rational scientific measures, unless climate-change-induced sea level rise is mitigated to a far greater extent than is its trajectory today, Highway 37 will be swallowed by the San Pablo Bay sometime around the turn of the 22nd century.

Which is why keeping Highway 37 upfront as a topic is so important toward realizing solutions in the coming decades. And, as was evidence in the town hall, transportation officials are still seeking consensus on what strategies to take; so, yes, the time for talk is now. In fact, a collection of stakeholders calling itself the State Route 37 Policy Committee is meeting regularly under the auspices of the Congestion Management agencies of Marin, Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties to plot out a strategy to finance the reconstruction of Highway 37. It’s an important first step toward the highway’s future.

Change can happen, even on Highway 37. It was only 22 years ago, after all, that Caltrans installed the concrete barrier that now divides the two lanes on Highway 37. For anyone who’d ever driven the hair-raising “Blood Alley” at night, it’s mind-boggling that it took nearly 50 years as a state highway before the $1.3 million life-saving barrier was built on the narrow two-lane road. Michael Landon fans jokingly referred to it as “Highway to Head-on,” with around five people dying from grisly head-on collisions per year in the early 1990s.

Now, Highway 37 crossover accidents aren’t only rare, they’re close to impossible.

Next summer will mark 90 years since the Sears Point Toll Road opened to “autoists,” following a three-year effort to build 10 miles of roadway linking the man-made “islands” – Mare, Skaggs, etc. – dredged from the levied swamplands of the San Pablo Bay marsh, and shaving off a whole 15.5 miles for North Bay travelers heading to Sacramento. Today, it’s Sonoma’s primary artery to not only the East Bay and Marin, but to a major portion of the state. Important segments of our workforce depend upon it for their livelihoods; major portions of our tourism economy drive it daily.

We don’t have another 90 years to wait for action on the next major upgrade to Highway 37.

Someone needs to take this orphan by the hand.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.