State and regional leaders want to jumpstart efforts to avoid more Highway 37 storm closures

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After flooding twice closed Highway 37 last month, regional and state leaders are collaborating to determine how to avoid more disruptive closures of the key roadway.

After the latest major storm two weeks ago again left pools of standing water on the roadway’s westbound lanes between Highway 101 and Atherton Avenue, the short-term fixes that allowed the critical North Bay commuter route to reopen to traffic after three days remain in place.

On Tuesday, the Marin Board of Supervisors is scheduled to review a proposal to use a $150,000 grant from the California Transportation Commission to develop a long-term strategy for helping manage the vulnerable, privately owned levees along the 21-mile connector between Novato and Vallejo.

“We need a longer-term fix sooner rather than later,” state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said. “That’s going to take some time, and it’s not going to be cheap. In the meantime, this is going to be reviewing the areas where we’re having the challenges.”

An elevated structure is seen by many as the best way to prevent the highway from being so susceptible to sea level rise, but comes with an estimated price tag of more than $3 billion. Mid-term plans also are being explored to alleviate congestion on the troubled artery, including a recent Napa Valley Transportation Authority study that could see lane expansion along the 10-mile segment from Sears Point to Mare Island to make way for a carpool lane and possible express service operated by Solano County. That would cost up to $250 million and still be as many as seven years away, according to a Metropolitan Transportation Commission representative.

Caltrans is for now concerned with just keeping the road open as each significant storm threatens the next closure. The flooded pasturelands on both sides of the highway continue to be pumped each day, and the state road agency recently invested in a temporary flood wall if needed the rest of the rainy season.

Meanwhile, the yearlong study could get underway soon if approved by Marin supervisors at the March 12 meeting. The hope is it will identify near-term answers while officials in each of the four counties the road serves, in Napa, Marin, Solano and Sonoma, keep the pressure on after signing a formal agreement to partner and settle on an eventual solution.

The westbound lanes of Highway 37 near the Atherton offramp were shuttered to motorists for the second time this winter starting Feb. 28. The time before that, it was floodwaters that closed it for a six-day stretch beginning on Feb. 14. Each time paled in comparison to a similar 27-day partial or full closure in early 2017.

In the most recent instance, a rain-swollen Novato Creek again breached an adjacent levee, in a problem spot on the northern side of the highway that was repaired after issues arose in 2017, according to Caltrans officials. The bill for those fixes, which also included expanded drainage and enhanced road barriers on the eastbound lanes, came to almost $10 million.

While officials work with the landowner on plans to fix the levee, Caltrans was able to get the roadway reopened sooner than expected once they helped Marin County public works fix a nonfunctioning pumping system. A closure that was initially estimated to last into the workweek instead ended on March 2, and at limited costs compared to the extended closure earlier in February.

“When we saw the flooding, we weren’t sure how extensive it was, and whether or not the pumps could handle removing that water, and whether or not the creek was going to recede,” Caltrans District Director Tony Tavares said. “Luckily Mother Nature was on our side, it didn’t rain that much that weekend, the creek receded, we were able to pump everything and everything moved faster.”

Also helping the process, prior repairs mostly held on a levee to the south of the highway within the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit-owned right of way, though additional work is required. A three-day storm pushed Novato Creek over the top of that area just east of the latest issue earlier in the month, and the floodwaters combined with high tides out of the San Pablo Bay and kept the westbound lanes closed six days before reopening Feb. 20.

Costs across the inundated area from that first major storm are now estimated at more than $2 million. That included more than a $1 million in emergency work overseen by Marin County, another $500,000 Caltrans paid a contractor for around-the-clock work on the roadway and about $300,000 a freight rail operator spent to fix the levee and rebuild its track.

The state also coughed up about $300,000 to fix another breached levee that contributed to the flooding of Highway 37, this one located on Coastal Conservancy land at Pacheco Pond, an agency spokeswoman said. Another $200,000 went to a contractor to bolster the vicinity after the second storm, though it led to no additional levee breaches.

“I know the first instinct is to point at Caltrans and say, ‘It’s your highway,’ but our highway was never designed to be a levee,” Tavares said. “So we really need to look at the entire infrastructure system, which includes the levees, and how do we fortify the levees and make them stronger, but at the same time raising or doing something with the roadway. Whether it’s a viaduct or some type of bridge or if we raise the roadway, it’s going to take a lot of agencies working together to do that.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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