Tab for Highway 37 flood repairs hits $2M as next big Northern California storm arrives

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A version of this story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com, also part of the Sonoma Media Investments news network.

Emergency repair work to reopen State Highway 37 last week after floodwaters forced closure of the westbound lanes for six days has already cost roughly $2 million, creating fortifications that will soon be tested by another major storm drenching the North Bay.

The highway, which also saw one eastbound lane closed for stretches while crews cleared the deluge of water and repaired damage to the roadway and neighboring rail tracks, reopened fully last Wednesday for the morning commute.

After a similar, 27-day closure in early 2017, the road’s vulnerability to rising water during winter storms is growing tiresome for many who rely on Highway 37, which skirts the northern shores of San Pablo Bay while connecting southern Sonoma County to Vallejo and points east.

“The fire drill that we continue to have each winter is simply unacceptable,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “I think I speak for all the agencies when I say that we need a longer-term step advanced.”

The round-the-clock recovery effort kicked off Feb. 15, one day after the heavy rain subsided, when officials from a variety of agencies met in a field along the flooded road to draw up plans to limit Novato Creek from overflowing onto the highway.

The group — which included Caltrans, the public works departments of Marin County and city of Novato, Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP), teams from engineering contractors Ghilotti Bros. of San Rafael and Ghilotti Construction Company of Santa Rosa and the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit commuter line — worked in earnest to create a temporary access road, short-term levees to stop the tidal flow and a way for crews to begin pumping water off the critical commuter artery.

“We got together on the side and my question was, ‘Forget about who caused what to whom and who’s going to pay for the cost, what do we do as engineers?’” said Farhad Mansourian, general manager of SMART, which owns the nearby railroad corridor washed out by the Feb. 14 rains. “In the next two hours, we basically came up with a design of what needs to be done. Everybody did terrific work.”

“Our team repaired two levees that collapsed during the heavy rains that started February 13,” said Dale Mahoney, area manager for Ghilotti Construction. “We installed flood gates in this region two years ago to help with water control, but a much more permanent remedy is definitely required.”

Crews from Marin County Public Works and Ghilotti Bros. addressed flooding that broke through a levee and embankments undermined NWP tracks leaving them hanging in the air. NWP leases the land from SMART. A temporary fix was made, but a more permanent solution is needed.

Mario Ghilotti, the son of CEO Michael Ghilotti, was the on-site project manager for this operation in charge of a team of 75 workmen including four supervisors.

“We first had to build a 50-yard temporary, all-weather road that included spanning a creek from SR 37 to reach the failed levee by the NWP tracks,” said Mario Ghilotti. “

Two years ago, this same 1,500-foot section of SR 37 flooded twice -- closing the highway for nearly a month.

Ghilotti Bros. was contracted by Caltrans to repair broken levees near Novato Creek and perform follow up work.. Westbound lanes on SR 37 were closed for less than a week starting February 14 and reopened at 7 a.m. on the 20th.

A version of this story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com, also part of the Sonoma Media Investments news network.

“Our team repaired two levees that collapsed during the heavy rain,” said Michael Alten, vice president for field operations for Ghilotti Bros.

Ghilotti Bros. mobilized its workforce and brought in construction cranes with shovel buckets, dump trucks, fill rock, 20 light towers for night work and other materials to make repairs. Some 7,000 feet of K-rail wrapped in plastic and reinforced by large bags containing a cubic yard of sand were placed next to the road to form a flood barrier.

Repairing the highway, including some repaving work for a handful of ruts from the pooling water, is expected to cost about $500,000. The total is still being finalized and may still rise, according to a Caltrans spokesman.

The damage included the two breaches of a levee on the south side of the highway, allowing the creek to combine with the San Pablo Bay’s high tide to flood the westbound lanes west of Atherton Avenue.

The lesser breach occurred on State Coastal Conservancy land, while a more significant one occurred within a rail corridor used by NWP to haul freight.

Doug Bosco, NWP Co.’s co-owner, said the company will spend about $300,000 to fix the levee — reconstructing it with the help of dump trucks and a mounted excavator before resetting the rail ties.

That work was completed Monday morning and engineers moved a full-weight train over the repaired tracks to compact the material and ensure its safety.

“We don’t usually have that much track just dangling in the air, but I am confident (it’s safe) and have confidence in the people who did it,” said Bosco, who is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat and Business Journal. “As a practical matter when things like this happen, we all usually roll up our sleeves and chip in and fix them.”

NWP Co. pays for routine maintenance of that section of right-of-way, while SMART is responsible for major infrastructure repairs. The short-term levees will remain in place through the winter and likely into the summer.

As another big storm threatens the region and an active flood watch is now in place through at least late Wednesday, highway and transit officials will be monitoring the vulnerable area closely. Officials hope the quick-fix repairs will endure the remainder of the rainy season before a permanent solution can be developed for the problematic roadway susceptible to sea level rise from the San Pablo Bay.

“We’re still out there working on the levee, getting ready for the next storm coming in,” said Jake Studer, NWP Co.’s general manager. “As long as the temporary repairs that were done earlier to contain the water hold, we’ll be in good shape. If it doesn’t, we’ll have some problems. It’s only so tall that we can make it.”

Caltrans District 4 Director Tony Tavares said if another major storm hits this region, there is a risk that this road could flood again.

A February 2018 sea-level-rise risk report prepared for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission said there are six weak spots in the existing levee system that make SR 37 susceptible to flooding. The report also said some of these levees are privately owned and were not designed to specifically protect SR 37.

North Bay Business Journal correspondent Gary Quackenbush contributed to this report.

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