Plan for permanent fixes to key California Wine Country connector Highway 37 take shape

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After years of increasing traffic congestion, periodic highway flooding and levee breaks caused by rising tides and torrential rain, a three-pronged effort is being pursued to resolve this recurring scenario along a 21-mile section of State Route 37 from Highway 101 in Novato to Mare Island and I-80 including short term, interim and permanent remedies.

The plan for the highway, which frequently sees 10-mile bottlenecks, a 30-minute morning commute and a 1.5-hour afternoon commute to and from Solano County, was discussed during a live, two-hour virtual Town Hall meeting Thursday with State Senators Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, serving as co-hosts with additional input from county supervisors and transportation officials from four North Bay counties including Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Solano.

Here’s the Resilient 37 Executive Steering Committee’s three-pronged plan:

• Conduct an Ultimate Resilient Sea Level Rise Design Alternatives Assessment focusing on Highway 37 within Marin and Sonoma counties between U.S. 101 and Highway 121. The future risk assessment process is scheduled to be finalized by August.

• Develop a comprehensive multimodal corridor plan to identify goals, corridor needs and challenges, and project priorities for various modes of travel to inform decision-making and future funding; and

• Continue a corridor-wide effort known as planning and environmental linkage (PEL) to identify and narrow the range of alternatives to be advanced for environmental review and construction.

This accelerated PEL process includes fast tracking the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) environmental reviews.

The first in a series PEL corridor-wide public meeting will be held on Wednesday, May 26. Details on how to attend the virtual event will be posted to

Andy Fremier, deputy executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said the PEL analysis will address flood protection and sea level rise issues; watershed preservation and the protection of endangered species; transit options to move more people with less congestion; bicycle and pedestrian paths; how to maintain access for the long term with connection points plus property access and recreational opportunities.

He said this process will also help derive specific corridor-wide design alternatives: between highways 101 and 121, and from Highway 121 to Mare Island.

“The purpose is to know the full range of solutions to address with the public and to answer questions like: Is this the best location, should a direct route over water be more efficient or should new possible routes be designated?” Fremier added.

State Senator Bill Dodd, D-Napa
State Senator Bill Dodd, D-Napa

“This section of Route 37 handles some 40,000 to 50,000 vehicles per day, a volume expected to increase by 50% over the next 20 years,” said Dodd.

“Our objective is to create a safer, reliable and resilient Highway 37 and to include public input gleaned from an online questionnaire along with suggestions and preferences on the various alternatives under consideration.”

In addition, there are flood reduction projects underway along the highway. One reduces flooding through CalTrans efforts from Highway 101 to Sears Point that include new paving and repairing low spots, building concrete walls, adding drains, controlling water with flood gates, dams and pumps, as well as having inflatable barriers. Several of these improvements have already been made.

Officials are considering a potential initiative that involves removing the median fixed barrier and using a movable barrier as an interim solution to add a carpool lane for the east and west bound lanes during morning and evening commutes from Sonoma Raceway to Mare Island. A study is also being conducted for a way to raise the roadbed from Hwy 101 to Sears Point.

Another option would also allow the shoulder to be used as a carpool lane to create four lanes, while another possible approach would build a four-lane highway with carpool lanes during peak periods. To help address climate change, encourage ride sharing and micro transit as well as make express bus transit feasible on the corridor, all options being considered would add carpool lane(s).

Caltrans and the MTC are leading studies on a long-term objective that would lift the corridor out of the marshlands and lead to the construction of a bridge over San Pablo Bay. Alternative road alignment(s) away from marshland are also on the table for consideration as options for the existing route.

Senator Dodd said, “This corridor is vital. Over half of SR 37 users are from Solano County and 25% are from the City of Vallejo. Furthermore, this is the only major evacuation route from the North Bay if the San Rafael/Richmond Bridge should go out.”

He recalled seeing a report that said sea level rise high enough to cause flooding was not expected until 2025, “but it came in 2017 producing flooding for over three weeks. More flooding means more erosion. We not only need a 3rd lane approach (2 lanes plus use of a shoulder lane for HOV through the wetlands) but a transportation connection to the rail line in Napa.”

In 2017, SR 37 was shut down for 28 days and in 2019 for 8 days due to heavy rains.

David Rabbitt, Sonoma County District 2 supervisor, said, “Short term solutions are a must, but we are also looking at long-term permanent fixes creating a highway that is built to last for all travelers with wetland access for cyclists, pedestrians and emergency vehicles.”

Judy Arnold, Marin County District 5, said, “A multimodal transportation system is also needed including buses, carpooling, and rail options to further reduce road congestion while also lowering greenhouse gas emissions and improving the environment.”

Saving commute time is a key goal, given today’s 10-mile bottlenecks, a 30-minute a.m. commute and a 1.5-hour p.m. commute to and from to Solano County where more affordable homes are available.

Dena El-Tawansy, District 4 director for Caltrans Bay Area, said projects in the environmental review process are expected by early 2023 with some construction projects completed in 2024 and open to the public in 2025.

Ann Richmond, executive director of the Transportation Authority of Marin County, said, “Protecting the environment and natural resources is essential along with managing the impact on existing users by offering mobility options, managing costs and addressing user needs. This is where the questionnaire comes in -- to help us determine what are the most important public issues and safety concerns, where access should be provided, as well as the process steps and timetable expectations people have along with long term considerations.”

She said 2021 to 2022 is the timeframe for setting this new vision. In 2022 project alternatives and strategies from the PEL process would be identified to narrow the range of options.

Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, said a critical component of an east-west connection includes looking a SMART as part of a use analysis for the existing rail line, along with a bus transit analysis.

“A rail or bus plan is needed to advance the roadway decongestion component of the overall plan.”

She said the SR 37 to 121 intersection is in the environmental study stage evaluating alternatives to the traffic light.

According to Senator Dodd, “In a partnership with CalTrans we are hoping to improve traffic flow at the Sears Point intersection to further reduce backup congestion.”

Funding this overall multi-billion-dollar improvement project will most likely require tolls on the corridor section through the marshland adjusted for users based on their income levels. Such tolls are seen as a matching incentive to attract state and federal funds.

State Senator Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg
State Senator Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg

Senator McGuire closed the meeting saying the focus now is on short term and interim improvement projects and creating resiliency against flooding. It will also include a more permanent fix to the Marin County section initially and also involve an environmental study how to get out of marshland from the Sears Point raceway to Vallejo, while continuing to weigh ongoing maintenance costs.

Getting involved

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