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A proposal has been floated to alleviate tieups on Highway 37 decades before the state could fund the project by adding an elevated toll road, and Santa Rosa Junior College is planning how to use $410 million in bond money to upgrade its five sites including campuses in Santa Rosa and Petaluma.

United Bridge Partners wants to expand the oft-congested section of Highway 37 between Sears Point and Mare Island, restore wetlands and do it decades sooner by charging tolls.

“We have a huge problem in the North Bay today, and that problem is state Highway 37,” said Ed Diffendal, president and CEO of the Foster City-based builder and operator of privately owned bridges and roads, at the Business Journal’s Construction Conference on May 18. The 21-mile roadway is a microcosm of a U.S. public infrastructure “disaster” for one in four of the nation’s bridges and 28 percent just in California, and a $76 billion backlog in projects needed to fix structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges.

“You have a more than 25 percent chance that the next bridge you drive over something really bad happening,” he said.

Tolls and traffic snarls have been a part of Highway 37’s 88-year history. The Novato–Vallejo connector route originally opened as a toll road in 1928, and the state purchased it in 1938. Before a concrete divider was installed more than decade ago, the roadway got the nickname Bloody Alley because of a number of accidents. Though the section west of the Highway 121 intersection near Sonoma Raceway was widened and upgraded to a four-lane highway, the eastward portion to Mare Island in Vallejo remains two lanes and subject to traffic tieups during commute hours and on big race days.

Caltrans doesn’t have a Highway 37 expansion project funded in its 2050 plan, so paying for the project by tolls would solve traffic congestion much sooner, Diffendal said. On May 5 he presented a proposal for a four-lane toll road to the State Route 37 Policy Committee, made up of 12 elected officials from Sonoma, Solano, Marin and Napa counties. He had first floated the concept publicly at Sonoma Raceway in November.

The plan calls for buying the section of roadway from the state, building a two-lane span of roadway from Sears Point and the Mare Island bridge, fixing the intersections at both ends. The raised roadway with a bike lane would be for eastbound traffic, and the existing roadway would be converted to westbound lanes without a divider.

As sea-level rise becomes a problem, the existing roadway eventually would be replaced with a causeway to match the eastbound lanes, Diffendal said.

The project would be funded by private investors with no state or federal money, he said. Tolls would be logged electronically by the FasTrak system used on Bay Area bridges and express lanes, and tolls would be comparable to those rates. Options for vanpools and discounted toll transponders could be available for lower-income commuters, he said.

There have been concerns over the years about the environmental impact of the existing roadway, such as blocking tidal flow of water between the wetlands and San Pablo Bay, and any work to expand the highway. A causeway for Highway 37 was first suggested to Caltrans in 2009 by San Francisco Bay Habitat Joint Venture.

After talking with environmental groups, United Bridge Partners is proposing a design and construction approach that would allow water to flow freely under the roadway and only touch the ground where the pillars would be located, Diffendal said. FIGG, a major U.S. bridge-focused engineering firm and venture partner with American Infrastructure MLP Funds in United Bridge Partners, developed the technique with input from the Sierra Club. Using precast, post-tension segmented concrete construction, the 40-ton spans of roadway would be built on Mare Island. The cranes and other equipment would move along completed roadway, sinking each pillar and laying each Lego-like span in place without touching the ground.

Using that system, United Bridge Partners was able to build the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge in Chesapeake, Va., in 23 months instead of four years.

The goal is to have the new section of Highway 37 fully reopened 30 months after getting the official notice to proceed with the project, Diffendal said.

“There could be in five years from now a new highway,” he said.

SRJC PROJECTS

Quattrocchi Kwok Architects of Santa Rosa and Gensler are set to complete the master plan for SRJC renovations and upgrades by October, at which time the projects could start moving closer to construction, said Leigh Sata, the college’s director of capital projects, at the conference.

SRJC’s bond money could be leveraged with money from the $9 billion state education facilities bond measure on the November ballot. It includes $2 billion for community college projects, he said.