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Oft-flooded Highway 37 in Northern California eyed for locally directed long-term solutions

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What could be in store for Highway 37

A new memorandum of understanding assigns responsibility for overall project management coordination to the Bay Area Toll Authority with local transportation authorities having a role for the road portion in each county.

• Segment A: (Highway 101 to SR 121) assigned to Bay Area Toll Authority, Caltrans, Sonoma County Transportation Authority and Transportation Authority of Marin.

• Segment B: (Sears Pt. to Mare Island Bridge) assigned to BATA, Caltrans, SCTA, Solano Transportation Authority and Napa Valley Transportation Authority.

• Segment C: (Mare Island Bridge to I-80) assigned to BATA, Caltrans and SCTA.

Segment A

Two options have been proposed: 1A utilizes an elevated structure design with a 5.7-mile causeway bridge. 2A, with a hybrid design, would include a three-mile causeway bridge plus a 2.6-mile embankment.

The Transit Authority of Marin is working on a funded Phase 1 study of Sea Level Rise impacts on Segment A1. Phase 2 will look at levee protection alternatives in Segments A1 and A2 – which will be used for possible interim improvements, such as those made when two levees broke Feb. 13, as well as in the ultimate project (for segments A+B California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)/National Environmental Policy Act Review (NEPA) Phase).

Segment B

Considered to be the highest priority and the longest portion of the SR 37 included in plan, work on this will begin in 2019 and conclude in 2022 at a cost of $8 million. At the same time, final design work is also scheduled for completion by 2022 at a cost of $12 million. Construction of this segment will be completed by 2025 at cost estimated between $80 to $130 million.

Two options and several alternatives are under consideration. The first option could involve a three-lane contra flow roadway utilizing a Mobile Moveable Barrier (MMB) similar to the one on the Golden Gate Bridge. The second could create a four-lane highway, with part-time or regular full-time 3rd and 4th lanes using shoulders. Both options would have HOV lanes and require widening the Tolay Creek Bridge.

Segment B alternatives include a combination raised causeway and embankment, a four-lane causeway adjacent to the existing roadway; a four-lane highway using land along a future SMART rail route (the Northern Alignment), along with a four-lane causeway in the Bay (Southern Alignments A1-Shoreline & A2-San Pablo Bay). The cost of each alternative solution ranges from $2.4 billion to $3.3 billion and would involve the acquisition of addition right of way, from 113 to 428 acres, depending on the one selected.

Segment C

Improvements include a new Solano County Fairgrounds interchange.

For the fourth time in three years, North Bay commuters faced delays and closures due to flooding along the western end of State Route 37.

Starting on Feb. 13 runoff from heavy rains inundated portions of this highway near Novato Creek. The result was a four-day closure of a road which, even when bone dry, is a commuters’ nightmare. Six days later, the rains returned, and on Feb. 26, this major east-west commute route was submerged again. Westbound lanes were back open Saturday afternoon, days ahead of schedule.

But on the same day floods first cut the road, requiring a more than $2 million effort to repair levees and restore the road, an administrative action had begun that could accelerate the adoption and funding of more permanent remedies.

Steve Heminger, the departing executive director of the Bay Area Toll Authority, requested its oversight committee refer a memorandum of understanding to Caltrans and four North Bay county transportation agencies recommending a shift of oversight on future improvements for this often-congested and flood-prone corridor from San Francisco Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission to BATA.

This shift, which on paper appears to be a bureaucratic shuffle, could prove important, officials said, because it shifts oversight from a planning agency to BATA, a collector of tolls from Bay Area bridges, with exception of the Golden Gate Bridge. Given Highway 37 falls under California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) authority, and involves several county transportation committees, having a point agency focused on financing and revenue sourcing responsible for delivering road upgrades could prove vital to getting years of construction projects off drawing boards.

“Until now, we’ve done things as a committee. This transfer of functional responsibility formalizes a new arrangement about who is doing what, and who will obtain and manage resources,” said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority (SCTA), which signed the MOU on Feb. 2.

What could then be on the horizon are more funding resources for a series of phased improvements to the roadway from Novato to Vallejo included in the Resilient SR 37 program. One of these improvements – raising the road – could get a boost. BATA has toll income to leverage for financing, and it already collects tolls so authorities could get the state to design the project to include a bridge, or elevated causeway, and then collect tolls under BATA authority.

“This makes sense because each county transportation authority would not have the money for comprehensive SR 37 improvements, BATA has financial resources from tolls assessed at seven San Francisco Bay Area bridges that can be allocated for SR 37 upgrades, along with funding from Regional Measure 3 (RM3). “

Her agency received the MOU along with the Napa Transportation Authority (NTA), Transportation Authority of Marin (TAM) and Solano Transportation Authority (STA), each of which had overview of portions of the highway. Under the MOU, each county’s role is to define the various transportation components and projects for their portions of SR 37 and to also help with community outreach.

“It’s a team sport, with BATA serving as the head coach and general corridor manager while also playing a major funding role, and with Caltrans serving as the lead agency for obtaining environmental impact reviews,” Smith added.

Sonoma County District 2 Supervisor David Rabbitt said RM 3, a bold, Bay Area region wide traffic relief plan approved by 55 percent of the voters in June 2018, has $300 million allocated to four counties that they can apply to help fund local priorities.

What could be in store for Highway 37

A new memorandum of understanding assigns responsibility for overall project management coordination to the Bay Area Toll Authority with local transportation authorities having a role for the road portion in each county.

• Segment A: (Highway 101 to SR 121) assigned to Bay Area Toll Authority, Caltrans, Sonoma County Transportation Authority and Transportation Authority of Marin.

• Segment B: (Sears Pt. to Mare Island Bridge) assigned to BATA, Caltrans, SCTA, Solano Transportation Authority and Napa Valley Transportation Authority.

• Segment C: (Mare Island Bridge to I-80) assigned to BATA, Caltrans and SCTA.

Segment A

Two options have been proposed: 1A utilizes an elevated structure design with a 5.7-mile causeway bridge. 2A, with a hybrid design, would include a three-mile causeway bridge plus a 2.6-mile embankment.

The Transit Authority of Marin is working on a funded Phase 1 study of Sea Level Rise impacts on Segment A1. Phase 2 will look at levee protection alternatives in Segments A1 and A2 – which will be used for possible interim improvements, such as those made when two levees broke Feb. 13, as well as in the ultimate project (for segments A+B California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)/National Environmental Policy Act Review (NEPA) Phase).

Segment B

Considered to be the highest priority and the longest portion of the SR 37 included in plan, work on this will begin in 2019 and conclude in 2022 at a cost of $8 million. At the same time, final design work is also scheduled for completion by 2022 at a cost of $12 million. Construction of this segment will be completed by 2025 at cost estimated between $80 to $130 million.

Two options and several alternatives are under consideration. The first option could involve a three-lane contra flow roadway utilizing a Mobile Moveable Barrier (MMB) similar to the one on the Golden Gate Bridge. The second could create a four-lane highway, with part-time or regular full-time 3rd and 4th lanes using shoulders. Both options would have HOV lanes and require widening the Tolay Creek Bridge.

Segment B alternatives include a combination raised causeway and embankment, a four-lane causeway adjacent to the existing roadway; a four-lane highway using land along a future SMART rail route (the Northern Alignment), along with a four-lane causeway in the Bay (Southern Alignments A1-Shoreline & A2-San Pablo Bay). The cost of each alternative solution ranges from $2.4 billion to $3.3 billion and would involve the acquisition of addition right of way, from 113 to 428 acres, depending on the one selected.

Segment C

Improvements include a new Solano County Fairgrounds interchange.

Some $100 million is currently allocated from RM3 for Route 37, including $3 million to TAM for a levee evaluation study, $15 million to SAT for an interchange, $24 million to SCTA for the SR 37/121 interchange and $58 million to TAM and SCTA for SR 37 Segments A & B planning.

While partial funding will come from the RM3, also included is a toll plan that would provide equitable access for those using this highway, according to the SR 37 Policy Committee.

“This is a big chunk of change,” said Rabbitt. “Route 37 has been an orphan of Caltrans for some time with emphasis on repairs rather than on deferred maintenance and an overall solution. It has not been a number one priority compared with I-80, SR 29 and US 101. King tides along SR 37 have ranged 18 inches higher, while the roadbed has sunk 20 inches.”

Rabbitt envisions that within three to five years, a highway roundabout could be built where 37 meets 121 that would ease congestion by allowing continuous access from all directions with no stops. Another intermediate step would extend two lanes eastbound. Other options include three lanes using a mobile moveable barrier to switch traffic morning and evenings, or four lanes as part of a raised causeway.

On the eastern end of the highway, a Mare Island interchange is proposed with a Westbound lane drop extension and ramp metering system.

The overall objectives for Resilient SR 37 are:

• Improving the highway’s defenses against sea level rise.

• Improving traffic flow and peak travel times.

• Restoration of wetlands and bay lands, as well as to provide accommodation for multimodal use and facilitate public access to natural resources.

Traversing SR 37 through the wetlands continues to cause significant time delays for commuters. Resilient SR 37 program improvements could reduce Eastbound commuter peak time travel from 100 minutes to 24 minutes, and Westbound time from 47 minutes to 23 minutes, according to BATA/MTC studies.

These studies show that user benefits from delay time saved based on existing conditions in 2017 were worth $39 million annually, and by 2022 savings could reach $69 million annually, given projected conditions. In off peak times, this corridor can be traversed in 20 minutes each way.

Six known weak links have been found due to floods, including those at Novato Creek, Tubbs Island and Mare Island flooded both in 2017 and by recent storms. UC Davis and AECOM researchers predict that in 30 years, sea level rise and storm surge will inundate SR 37 unless action is taken.

According to BATA Public Affairs Officer John Goodwin, when the MOU is signed by all parties, it will begin to integrate transportation, ecology and sea level rise adaptation to produce a more resilient State Route 37. This program also includes plans for concurrent multi-modal project development, such as bus and rail transit (funded and delivered independently by SMART), as well as bike, pedestrian and public access provisions.

“We have an agreement in principle from all parties to this MOU, and several of the Congestion Management Agencies (the four North Bay county transportation authorities) have already signed on, but the devil is in the details.”

“From everyone’s perspective, all of this can’t happen fast enough. With 20/20 clear vision hindsight, these improvements should have occurred years ago. Time is money and the longer this process takes the more Resilient SR 37 will cost. Until now, we’ve never seen responsibilities assigned to each county transportation authority for portions of SR 37,” Goodwin added.

A critical next step is to determine whether to seek CEQA/NEPA environmental reviews for each of the three highway segments as a group or one at a time.

“People get frustrated on how long all of this takes, and what it will cost, before things can start to move forward. But some quick fixes are planned, such as re-striping and widening the SR 37 and 121 intersection. At the same time, work on the Solano County side is also needed,” according to Supervisor Rabbitt.

He said, “Today this is not a safe roadway for the 45,000 vehicles that use it. Environmentalists are cognizant of the need for improvement. Everyone agrees that the planned new SR 37 will be more environmentally suitable than what we have now, with water flowing freely under a causeway.”

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