Ambitious plans for ‘blood alley’
Traffic jams, wetlands restoration, global warming and the fate of the California clapper rail all converge along a 21-mile stretch of road once known to commuters as Blood Alley.
And that’s the kindest nickname Highway 37, between Novato and Vallejo, is getting from commuters these days.
Engine over-heating, road rage, and frustrated efforts to get around the traffic any way you can has made the busy commute route a flash-point.
Steve Page, general manager of the Sonoma Raceway, which sits at the Sears Point crossroads of Highways 37 and 121, says raceway officials have “been painfully aware” of the traffic problems for quite some time.
“We’re at a pinch point,” said Page. “I see it every day.”
When bumper-to-bumper traffic becomes a daily occurrence, maybe it’s time to do something about it.
The highway – now a two-lane road with a center barrier, built atop a levee that bisects the wetlands – has been considered for freeway construction in the past, but a plethora of economic and environmental concerns have blocked those plans, and the California Department of Transportation has directed its focus on the Highway 101 corridor.
That’s changing. In 2012 Caltrans partnered with U.C. Davis on a Highway 37 Stewardship Survey, which found broad political and institutional acceptance of the possibility of rising sea levels, and a willingness to incorporate marsh adaptation into new infrastructure.
“A raised causeway structure was found to meet most objectives of the diverse group of stakeholders – meeting transportation demand needs, while protecting or enhancing wetlands ecosystems,” said Allyn Amsk, of Caltrans.
It’s not just the two-lane stretch from the Raceway to Mare Island that’s got official attention. Caltrans recognizes that long-term concepts and strategies must include improving the interchanges with 101 and Interstate 80 as well. “This corridor is a priority planning effort for Caltrans,” said Amsk.
Priority or not, finding money for improving, rebuilding and upgrading a state highway is doubtless the key hurdle – aside from the regulatory issues that must be addressed. “There is next to no money for large-scale transportation projects anymore,” said Sonoma County Transportation Authority director Suzanne Smith.
Enter the private sector. After almost three years of behind-the-scenes research, an alliance known as the United Bridge Partners on Oct. 7 gave a presentation at Sonoma Raceway to Sonoma Valley wine, tourism and business professionals – proposing an innovative solution:
A four-lane elevated causeway, funded privately and paid for over time by one-way toll.
Such a plan would allow tidal exchange of fresh and salt water, encourage movement of anadromous fish (salmon) and other wildlife, help restore the much-diminished Bay Area wetlands – and ease traffic congestio, to boot.
United Bridge has built other high-profile causeways and highways through environmentally sensitive areas, again privately funded and quickly constructed. The South Fork Jordan River Bridge spans a harbor entrance in Chesapeake, Virginia, at 385 feet high; it was built in two years entirely underwritten by private funds.
“Our approach requires no public investment, allowing public funds to be spent on other priorities,” said United Bridge Partners CEO Ed Diffendal. “Financing is provided by investors who are committed to improving the infrastructure of our nation’s roads and bridges.”
The wheels have already begun turning on the unorthodox plan. Earlier this week the Sonoma County Transit Authority voted to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding with neighboring Napa, Solano and Marin counties to cooperate on strategies to advance improvements in the Highway 37 corridor, to “address the threat of sea level rise, traffic congestion, transit options and recreational activities.” The other three counties are expected to follow SCTA’s lead as soon as this month.
Page convened the Oct. 7 presentation not only to inform his colleagues of the emerging plan, but to marshal support among the county’s influencers. “My goal right now is to rally support among the business leadership in our area to help push the idea forward,” he said.
“I think the idea would be to have them finished by the end of this decade,” said Page, “presuming the public process that would give them the rights to the corridor, and the permitting to actually build the roadway, was able to move forward in a timely basis.”
Diffendal agreed. “If the government agencies move forward with United Bridge Partners’ approach, we can expand Highway 37 by as early as 2020, or 30 months after construction begins.”