Bay Area voters could kickstart long-delayed plans for Highway 37 overhaul
Bay Area voters this June hold the key to unlocking $100 million in new funding to help rebuild the North Bay’s traffic-plagued Highway 37, which each weekday carries enough motorists to fill a capacity crowd at San Francisco’s AT&T Park.
On weekends with the Sonoma Raceway in action at Sears Point, legions more traverse the 21-mile route from Vallejo to Novato, and backups extend for miles.
“Ultimately it’s arithmetic,” said Steve Page, who as Sonoma Raceway’s president and general manager has long lobbied for a solution to the daily logjams near the motorsports complex. “Two lanes go down to one lane (at Highway 121), and that’s the squeeze point.”
The new highway funding would come through approval of Regional Measure 3 in the nine-county Bay Area, which would raise tolls on the region’s state-owned bridges by $1. But it would cover only a small fraction of the estimated $1 billion to $4 billion cost of rebuilding a modern Highway 37 that could accommodate traffic and withstand the rising sea levels along the edge of San Pablo Bay.
Caltrans has said conventional state and highway funding won’t allow a Highway 37 project to get underway for another 70 years.
Alternatives include future tolls on the highway and even turning over a stretch of the troubled route to a private operator.
Meanwhile, a recent UC Davis review projects climate change could raise sea levels in San Pablo Bay to a point of regularly overtaking the roadway with water by 2050, and full submersion by 2100.
Members of the state highway’s policy group say they recognize the urgency. After years of meetings, including pitches to privatize the road and allow the new owner to charge tolls to drive it, local leaders believe they’re headed in the right direction for developing a long-term plan.
“Really it’s a state responsibility, but the reality is they’re not doing anything,” said David Rabbitt, Sonoma County supervisor and chairman of the Highway 37 policy committee. “It’s not on their list. So it means what are we going to do?”
To start, they’re asking Bay Area voters to agree to the bridge toll hikes via Regional Measure 3 to raise $4.45 billion to pay for badly needed transportation upgrades and expansions around the region.
Of that total, $100 million would be dedicated to Highway 37 design and environmental analyses, with the rest left for short-term capital improvements.
The SMART train also would benefit from a $40 million shot in the arm from the proposed $1 toll increases, proposed to go into effect in phases in 2019, 2022 and 2025, on all Bay Area bridges except the independently run Golden Gate Bridge. The Highway 101 Narrows project in Sonoma and Marin counties would see an influx of $120 million, and pedestrian and bicycle segments on the San Francisco Bay Trail would receive a $150 million.
At the moment, any overhaul for Highway 37 appears to be a ways out.
A newly released study backed by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission states long-range construction of a bridge or other elevated structure above protected marshlands wouldn’t start until at least 2030, and could be as far out as 2050. A planned completion date is even less clear.
“We believe funding made available under Regional Measure 3, once it passes, gets us off to a good start and then enables us to consider seriously the exact nature of the fix,” said Jake Mackenzie, chairman of the MTC. “These are significant engineering accomplishments that need to be undertaken. In terms of things getting done in a decade instead of half century or more, there’s got to be some means of financing and certainly tolling would fit that particular bill.”
The complexity of relieving bottlenecks relates to not one, but three primary chokepoints along the state roadway. The other two are on the east and west ends, from Highway 101 to the Highway 121 interchange and Mare Island east to its terminus at Interstate 80 in Vallejo, respectively.
However, the UC Davis study shows the east-west artery runs the risk of a traffic flow double whammy in a few locations due to its proximity to water.
Those threats became reality in early 2017 when on two occasions flooding forced Highway 37’s closure for multiple days near the Marin-Sonoma border after rainstorms combined with exceptionally high tides and overtook the road at Novato Creek.
Round-the-clock repairs included patches to a private levee and expanded drainage and 5-foot barriers on the eastbound lanes, enabling the shuttered 3-mile segment to reopened. The repairs came at cost of about $10 million, as well as with an acknowledgment that the temporary updates still left the corridor exposed and far from fixed in the long term.
Highway 37 also suffers from being down on the list of priorities for the four counties involved.
Sonoma County remains primarily focused on completing the Highway 101 Narrows project; Marin has its attention on the Interstate 580-Highway 101 interchange; Napa has eyes trained on Highway 29; and Solano looks to first address its Interstate 80 woes.
“So it’s every county’s second priority,” Rabbitt said. “It’s the stepchild of state highways, and we take it for granted. But it’s an important east-west connector, and turns out to be pretty important.”
If Regional Measure 3 passes in June, United Bridge Partners, the private company that has expressed interest in operating Highway 37, said it still wants in. The company previously offered to cover environmental review costs as part of taking over responsibility of the road in exchange for charging a toll.
“The community desperately needs a solution for that roadway,” said Ed Diffendal, CEO of the Foster City-based private investment firm. “I would love to provide some capital to help, but right now the counties are not focused on the funding. I just can’t evaluate whether or not we’ll have the funds (to invest) in three-to-five years’ time at this point.”
In the interim, Caltrans is trying to help ease congestion with minor tweaks that improve travel times by adding new signs and striping to reduce lane hopping around the turn lanes at the Highway 37-Highway 121 interchange. Rainstorms prevented the scheduled adjustments in February, but they went into place on the westbound lanes last week, with the eastbound work completed in time for Monday’s commute.
“We’re trying the best we can with what we have to work with,” said Vince Jacala, a Caltrans regional spokesman. “We repainted it and, at this point, we’re monitoring it closely and we’ll see where it goes. Other things are bigger projects down the road.”