‘Orphan highway’ gets needed attention at Sonoma forum
The future of State Route 37 got a thorough examination from a panel of local, state and federal elected officials at a community forum in Sonoma Wednesday night at the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building.
Several of the panelists referred to the 21-mile linkage between Novato and Vallejo as “an orphan in the state highway system,” but they were ready to discuss the issues and obstacles that confront the oft-traveled, oft-congested roadway.
“We all got a peek at what the future holds this winter when a portion of Highway 37 in Novato was closed for nearly a week on two occasions in February,” said John Burns, publisher of the Sonoma Index-Tribune, in introducing the panel. “Something needs to change.”
Only a single lane in each direction for much of its length, the highway is plagued by more traffic than it can comfortably handle, and its bay-side route is imminently threatened by rising sea levels. Although high tides, heavy rainfall and failed levies were blamed for the extended flooding of SR-37 at Novato this winter, sea level increases projected to go as high as six feet by the end of the century are seen as an inevitable threat.
An elevated highway, more lanes, alternate routes and even a privately-funded toll causeway were on the table during the 90-minute town hall, sponsored by Sonoma Media Investments, which owns the I-T.
Many of the seven-member panel had been on the same stage a month earlier, when Supervisor Susan Gorin sponsored her first town all on the subject.
But this time the panel included a federal legislator: Rep. Mike Thompson, through whose congressional district the entire highway runs. He was the first to get a question from co-host Paul Gullixson, editorial page editor of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
“Is there a chance some money from that $1 trillion infrastructure bill we keep hearing about might be found to help with Highway 37?” Gullixson asked Thompson.
“The federal part of this problem is going to be interesting,” said the nine-term congressman. “The current president has said he’d like to see a trillion dollars in infrastructure spending. I’d like to see a trillion dollars in infrastructure spending, too. But federal funds go to the states, and it’s up to the states to allocate them for specific projects.”
Also on the panel were two Sonoma County supervisors who are members of the four-county Highway 37 Policy Committee – 1st District Supervisor Gorin and 2nd District Supervisor David Rabbitt. Jake Mackenzie – currently the mayor of Rohnert Park who also serves on the SMART board of directors, the regional Metropolitan Transit Authority, and the Bay Area Toll Authority – probably wore more hats than anyone else on the panel.
He also stood out by his green jacket, which he referenced before the meeting when he said, “I’m wearing my SMART jacket tonight.”
“Is it working?” asked state Sen. Bill Dodd, another elected official on the panel.
Part of the difficulty in dealing with Highway 37’s problems may be trans-jurisdictional oversight: it passes through three counties, Marin, Sonoma and Solano, and provides significant access into Napa. For none of those counties is it their top roads priority – which led panel members to the “orphan” analogy.
It has also been low on the list of Caltrans responsibilities, showing on the state transportation agency’s schedule for repair as far away as 2088, said Burns in his introduction. Still, even Dan McElhinney, Caltrans’ chief deputy district director for the Bay Area, admitted that the mid-winter flooding of the highway at its Novato intersection “raised the visibility” of the highway at all levels of government.