Editorial: Highway 37 plan shows road to recovery

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The heavy rains this week conjured a dispiriting flashback for Highway 37 commuters – almost exactly two years ago, from Feb. 9 to 23 in 2017, the well-traveled Marin-Sonoma-Solano thoroughfare was closed after torrential storms flooded the low-lying roadway rendering it impassable for the 40,000 vehicles dependent upon daily to get from home to work and back again.

It took two weeks for emergency road crews to raise the sunken, marsh-crossed road by nearly 2 feet in order to ward off future incursions of rain, runoff, erosion and tide.

And so far it’s worked. Until this week’s storm caused the closure of westbound 37 in its Novato stretch, neither this rainy winter nor the winter before had seen any weather-induced closures to the highway once dubbed “blood alley,” for the amount of head-on collisions that took place between Sears Point and Mare Island, before a barrier was placed in 1995 between its two tightly squeezed single-direction lanes.

Those recent upgrades, as well as the life-saving center divide, are testament to the fact that Highway 37 isn’t the lost cause it seemed to be just a few years ago when transportation watchdogs started issuing a clarion call that the sea-level rise expected in the decades ahead would see the highway reclaimed by the San Pablo Bay by the end of the century.

Hopes for the highway were further bolstered last week when a handful of local transportation agencies signed on to what’s been dubbed “Resilient State Route 37,” a plan for significant changes to the highway meant to lighten the sluggish evening commute east in the near future and meet the challenges of climate change down the road. (scta.ca.gov/projects/highway37)

Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, who’s vice chair of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, has been the 1st District’s representative in Highway 37-stakeholder meetings with local transportation agencies for several years.

“It’s all good news that we’re moving forward in making some progress,” Gorin told the Index-Tribune this week.

The “Resilient” plan breaks the thoroughfare into three distinct segments – the flood-prone stretch from Novato to Sears Point, the traffic-clogged two-lane road from Sears Point to Mare Island; and, lastly, the tract from Mare Island to Highway 80. The middle stretch – currently an afternoon traffic snarl and the piece most prone to sea-level rise in the future – is expected to receive the bulk of the attention.

While some of most ambitious concepts in the plan will cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars – one idea to build a bridge from Novato to Vallejo over the San Pablo Bay would be upward of $2.4 billion – others seem downright doable.

Officials have already earmarked $100 million for the project from the recently voter approved hike in state bridge tolls. While a legal challenge to Regional Measure 3 works its way out in the courts, $30 million of it is being planned for a roundabout to replace the current 3-way stop light near Sonoma Raceway. It would take an estimated seven years to complete, but it’s one of the plan’s more immediate solutions and would provide some measure of traffic relief at that oft-clogged juncture.

Other ideas include adding a movable third lane from Sears Point to Mare Island, its direction dependent on the commute, much like the Golden Gate Bridge – its price tag is at $150 million, but if it were to open in 2025, as the plan estimates, it would create instant relief, as long as bottlenecks on the bookends of that stretch are dealt with.

The crème de la crème – well, aside from a bridge from Novato to Vallejo, and we’ll believe it when we see it – is the plan for a raised causeway, which would flow above any sea-level rise and pay for itself via a Fastrack style toll. The sea-level causeway plan made headlines a couple of years ago when media such as the Index-Tribune began pushing lawmakers and transportation officials to deal with sea-level rise before Sonomans have to start chartering ferries to Discovery Kingdom. Turns out it didn’t completely stall after all – though it will idle for a while. That wouldn’t start until 2040 – if it goes forward at all. “I’m not sure that solution will be the one that we gravitate to,” says Gorin.

While, some of these improvements won’t help most Highway 37 travelers until their grandkids are old enough to drive them to get the senior discount at the Vallejo Denny’s, others might be realized in about seven years – when most of today’s drivers will still be enjoying the lumbar-tightening squeeze of hours-long bucket-seat commutes.

It’s important and hopeful progress – and a sign that when community impetus combines with proper funding, problems can be confronted.

“We’re excited we have a funding mechanism and some time lines,” adds Gorin.

But, she cautions: “In transportation considerations you don’t talk in years, you talk in decades.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect road conditions as of Feb. 15.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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