Highway 37 gets federal funding boost to lift it above rising sea levels

Work is expected to start by 2027 on an often flooded 2-mile stretch of the 21-mile artery that runs alongside San Pablo Bay connecting Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties.|

Rebuilding State Route 37 to elevate it above water in the face of rising sea levels got a welcome $155 million boost from the $1.2 trillion U.S. infrastructure Law of 2021, the California Transportation Commission announced this week.

The two-mile Marin County section of the 21-mile commuter artery that runs alongside San Pablo Bay connecting Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties marks the beginning of a larger $4 billion project planned for the whole corridor.

State transportation officials say work is expected to start in 2027 and end two years later.

The $180 million project approved Aug. 18 by the state’s transportation commission will raise the roadway by 30 feet over Novato Creek by 2029, well above the projected year 2130 sea-level rise.

“This will be a series of projects over a span of time,” John Goodwin, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which manages transportation planning for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area, said Friday.

The section over Novato Creek will raise the highway by 30 feet by 2029. Caltrans just needs to fill in the remaining $25 million necessary to complete the western section of the whole $4 billion project that includes the installation of a viaduct.

The entire project is to be completed in 2040.

“A lot of work needs to be done on Highway 37. This is a critical project that I’ve been working on for decades. But, yes, it is a top priority. That’s why I used my earmarks for Highway 37,” U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said Friday.

Starting the Marin County work “is on the state now,” Thompson said, adding: “That’s a requirement of the (federal) funding.”

Making improvements and maintaining a sound transportation budget going forward may be more difficult as the state faces a $31.5 billion budget shortfall. A bill authored by California Sen. Scott Wiener to fill the budget gap by raising seven Bay Area bridge tolls by $1.50 was scuttled this week.

In May, the California Transportation Commission prompted more grumbling about commuting equity when it approved a concept to install tolls between Sonoma and Solano counties to raise $430 million for road widening improvements.

Lifting the flood-prone Marin County section is a huge priority.

“I’m sure they’ll figure out a way to meet the cost. A lot of work needs to be done on Highway 37. It’s going under water, and climate change is the driver,” Thompson said.

With about 40,000 vehicles crossing it each day and 18,000 more per day expected over the next few decades, studies indicate that sea level rise and persistent flooding will make travel on the major thoroughfare close to impossible in the next quarter century.

Stanford University research that was released three years ago using data from the San Francisco Conservation and Development Commission provided a grim scenario.

The study showed:

• With the area already seeing traffic backups returning to pre-pandemic levels, a 1-foot rise in sea level will add a half-hour to the average commute. The North Bay would be particularly vulnerable because it has fewer alternative routes around the flooded areas.

• A 1-foot rise in sea level at the U.S. Highway 101–Interstate 580 interchange in San Rafael could affect 522,000 weekday trips.

• A 2-foot rise in sea level would affect downtown Napa, potentially hindering plans to bring 6,000 jobs to the city.

• Any sea level rise beyond 2 feet could threaten to cut off state Highway 37.

In December 2015, a memorandum of understanding was signed by North Bay county transportation authorities to develop funding, financing and project planning to reconstruct the highway to “withstand rising seas and storm surges while improving mobility and safety along the route,” Caltrans wrote in its report.

Marin County resident Dana Brechwald, program manager for the commission’s Adapting to Rising Tides environmental report, noted major concerns with pockets of vulnerable communities along the corridor.

That included the Marin County community of Bell Marin Keys, a low-lying neighborhood near Novato Creek.

Other “high consequence” concerns include such transportation hubs as ferry ports, rail services and even downtown districts like Marin County’s working hub, San Rafael — which could experience flooding on city streets.

As for Marin’s neighbor, Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbit was pleased with the cash infusion from the feds because of the show of progress.

“This is great — a big influx of money. The good thing about getting such a big chunk is, you find ways to find other dollars because you don’t want to lose (the windfall),” Rabbit said.

The District 2 supervisor believes Caltrans will be able to tap into State Highway Operation and Protection Program dollars to make up for the project financing gap.

“This is a critical Bay Area transportation corridor and current projections are that will be under water as soon as 2050 unless we act,” Caltrans Director Tony Tavares said in a Monday statement.

Caltrans is releasing Aug. 25 the project’s environmental impact report and assessment for the public to view. The state agency will host a public meeting in late September. The public comment period will conclude Oct. 7.

California Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said he’s excited about “moving dirt” to get the project going.

He was joined by California Sen. and Napa Democrat Bill Dodd, who called the project a “once-in-a-generation” endeavor.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture, banking and finance. She can be reached at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com

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