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$5 million to fight climate change on Highway 37

The solution to traffic and infrastructure woes along State Route 37, popularly known as Highway 37 between Novato and Vallejo, is aided by $5 million added to the pending state budget bill, Senate Bill 170. The funds are intended to help cope with the effects of climate change and sea-level rise along the route.

Since reversing the effects of climate change cannot be accomplished with $5 million alone, the bill prioritizes mitigation measures and opportunities to reduce the impact of construction and preserve the fragile habitat of the “baylands” – the area south of Petaluma along the Petaluma River across the north side of San Pablo Bay to Vallejo.

Senate Bill 170, which passed the Senate and Assembly last week, includes $5 million to be administered by the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, claimed leadership in adding the funds to the bill, saying in a press release, “This funding helps us address the environmental degradation of our wetlands and advance improvements to this critical transportation artery. These investments bring us closer to creating a sustainable and less-congested roadway.”

The allocation follows $3 million in the July budget for design and planning of interim improvements – including adding a lane between Sears Point and Vallejo to increase capacity and reduce traffic.

Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Agency (SCTA), said that although they are still working out specifics, “the intent is to use the funds to match other sources and enable us to engineer the section of the corridor from Sears Point to Mare Island and to work with partners like Sonoma Land Trust to acquire critical parcels needed for bay restoration, sea level rise protection and environmental mitigation for the improvements to Highway 37.”

Smith said that SCTA and their partners are working both on widening the highway and a long-term solution of elevating the roadway. “Both efforts are expensive but the state funds will go a long way toward getting the interim project shovel ready and ensuring we are doing the related work to restore the natural environment that surrounds the corridor,” she said.

From an environmental standpoint, a causeway – an elevated road that would allow tidal flow to deliver sediment and water, and provide a corridor for wildlife – is the preferred design alternative. “Our mantra with the SR 37 design has been ‘integrate, don’t mitigate,’ meaning in a perfect world we’d get a highway design that would integrate habitat goals for the baylands to the extent that environmental mitigation isn’t necessary,” said Kendall Webster, land acquisition manager for Sonoma Land Trust (SLT).

“However, we know that with a project as big as the SR 37 redesign, some amount of mitigation is necessary, and the sooner we can identify opportunities for mitigation, the faster the highway can be rebuilt,” she said.

Realistically, Webster told the Index-Tribune, “if they (build) it with a causeway it will be more environmentally friendly, but it will still require mitigation. I don’t know of any large construction project that doesn’t.”

Such mitigation is often off-site, reducing the impact of construction by providing enhancement and protection of similar environments. Webster said that Sonoma Land Trust was “working with landowners and our partners in the Sonoma Creek and Petaluma River baylands to reach our goal of protecting and restoring over 10,000 acres in the baylands.”

Sonoma Land Trust purchased and restored 1,000 acres of tidal marsh at Sears Point in 2015 by breaking through a long-standing levee, recreating marshland habitat for fish and fowl and providing a public walking trail accessible from Reclamation Road, south of the stoplight at Highway 37 and Lakeville Road.

Similar projects are still a priority for the land trust, said Webster, and the newly issued funds will help in that long-range effort. “(We) are excited that this new funding will be available to help us reach our goal while moving the highway project forward,“ said Webster.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who chairs the State Route 37 Joint Policy Committee, said in a news release, “This infusion of early funding will keep Highway 37 improvements on track and ensure we are doing all we can to restore the bay lands.”

The SR 37 Policy Committee of the Transportation Authority of Marin, TAM, includes three elected officials each from Marin, Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties. It was formed in 2015 to discuss joint county efforts to address issues such as sea level rise, traffic congestion, transit options and recreational activities along the 21-mile-long route connecting Highway 101 with Interstate 80.

Prior to the policy committee’s formation, the state Department of Transportation (Caltrans) had not prioritized SR 37, with no state funding projected until after 2050, if then. But as Smith pointed out, “Local policymaker coordination about the importance of the corridor and how bad it truly is out there” increased the visibility of the issue — and “flooding that closed the roadway for weeks over two winters certainly contributed.”

Ultimately, the reason for the infusion of cash into the corridor came down to one reality. “Global warming has triggered a dangerous rise in tidal waters across the San Francisco Bay and that’s now threatening a vital commuter route,” Dodd said in the release.

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