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.”

Perhaps surprisingly, getting the backing of a major environmental group was one of the first steps in moving the plan forward. Back in 2009, the San Francisco Bay Habitat Joint Venture asked Caltrans to study the feasibility of replacing the existing “at-grade” Highway 37 roadway between Sears Point and Mare Island with an elevated causeway operated as a toll facility.

The United Bridge plan includes a portion of the toll revenue going to “a permanent fund to do environmental restoration,” said Marc Holmes of the Bay Institute, “That’s what hooked me.”

Holmes emphasized that it was environmentalists that pressed for a new highway because of the benefits it would bring in re-establishing wetlands of the San Francisco Bay.

“There were 196,000 acres of tidal wetlands prior to European colonization,” he said. “By 1990, all but 16,000 acres had been diked off from the tidal waters of the Bay and converted to other uses.” Those dikes created low-value agricultural land for grazing or growing oat-hay, a sorry trade-off for the wealth of wildlife, including fish and birds that once teemed the edges of San Francisco Bay.

One bird species on the endangered species list, Ridgway’s rail or the California clapper rail, is indigenous to Bay Area marshlands with fewer than a thousand individuals left. The flightless shorebird’s Latin name reflects its precarious status: Rallus obsoletus.

Another endangered species is the salt marsh harvest mouse, which can survive on either fresh water or salt water. Current local habitat includes the Napa Sonoma Marsh at the mouth of Sonoma Creek, and Alman Marsh adjacent to Shollenberger Park in Petaluma.

The dikes that were built around the “islands” in the wetlands – including Skaggs Island – led to further subsidence of those mounds, which had served as barrier islands to prevent tidal surge flooding in settled areas. Maintaining those dikes now has become an expensive and un-ending drain on counties surrounding the bay.

“It’s a problem that is getting worse and will become even more severe as the sea level continues to rise,” said Holmes, introducing the elephant in the room – or the whale in the waters – global warming.

The state guidance for seawater increase projects a 55-inch sea level rise by 2100. Although a causeway of just a couple feet above sea level would be adequate to allow for tidal exchange and start the process of wetlands restoration, taking into account that projected sea level increase allowing extra room for storm surge means a causeway just seven or eight feet would be called for.

“Seven feet, that’s more than enough for the ecological restoration to occur,” said Holmes. At least in theory: a NASA climate scientist recently produced a study that the water line could rise by as much as 10 feet in 50 years as glaciers melt. United Bridge, however, is more likely to be compliant with state standards than NASA speculation – and if the state gets it wrong, the causeway will be drowned by the rising tide of global warming, along with nearly everything else along the California coast and Bay Area shoreline.

That aside, perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of the scheme is the proposal for making it a toll road – one way only, and electronically collected like the Bay Area’s FasTrak service, but a toll road nonetheless.

“Legislation would be required if the preferred alternative included converting a State Highway to a toll highway,” said Amsk. While toll roads are being added to the state highway system, some of them privately-funded like this project, they usually do require a legal change-in-status.

Yet prior to its purchase by the state in 1938, the section between Sears Point and Vallejo was known as the Sears Point Toll Road, managed by Golden Gate Ferry. When it was purchased by the State in 1938, tolls were removed; it then became signed as State Route 48 until 1964.

Long-time commuters in the area might remember that the section of the road was an unusual three-lane road until 1996, with the center lane being used as a passing lane for traffic in both directions. Not surprisingly, it acquired the nickname “Blood Alley” from a disturbing number of fatal head-on collisions in the unorthodox bi-directional lane.

But if Steve Page, Marc Holmes and United Bridge Partners are able to convince the regulatory bodies, and the state legislature, a soaring causeway will vault over the wetlands inside of five years, then the only thing drivers will have to complain about is the toll.

Whether or not that toll road means more drivers would choose to avoid the fare and divert their travels into the Sonoma Valley, via Highway 116 past Sonoma Raceway, is one of several unanswered questions in what is now a bold plan to solve a difficult problem.

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