North Bay highway construction projects on 101, 37 roll toward congestion relief

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Suzanne Smith has been executive director of Sonoma County Transportation Authority since October 1997.

The agency coordinates regional, state and federal funding for transportation projects and manages Measure M, the county’s quarter-cent sales tax.

Smith is set to speak at the Business Journal's May 29 Building the North Bay conference. In this interview, Smith highlights some of the region's big highway projects and their path toward reality soon. It has been edited for clarity.

What are top-of-mind transportation projects for you?

So, first and foremost, we’ve got the last Highway 101 widening project in Sonoma County. That’s the segment through Petaluma, from the northerly part of the (Petaluma River) bridge through the Narrows. Caltrans will open bids at the end of this month or early June. That’s the biggest and most immediate job that’s on the horizon.

In addition to that, there’s the “big pave,” which is going to be the Highway 101 rehab job that goes from Geyserville to Cloverdale. It’s kind of an extension of all the paving work that Caltrans did from Windsor up to Geyserville.

Then there’s Highway 37. There’s definitely a lot of work underway to figure out which segments of construction are going to happen first there.

We’re going to see a couple of things in the next year or two. One, the Highway 37 flooding problem on the westerly side near Highway 101. Caltrans is looking at a pretty major project on Highway 37 between Atherton Avenue and Highway 101 that would replace the Novato Creek bridge. It certainly has an impact on the way Highway 37 works for Sonoma County residents who use 37.

Two, we’re working with Caltrans and (the Metropolitan Transportation Commission) on the intersection at (Highway) 121 and Highway 37, at Sonoma Raceway. We are in the planning stages of that, getting into the environmental process hopefully later this year.

We’re also working on the intersection of highways 116 and 121 — a roundabout there. We don’t have the capital pot for that yet though. That’s still in development.

Have you noticed any acceleration in the progress on projects with legal matters getting resolved either at the ballot box or at the courthouse, with recent action on Regional Measure 3?

The really good news is we have a lot more certainty following the 2018 election cycle, which Proposition 6 (in November) defeated — the ability to plan for and deliver projects using the funds that were provided from the state through Senate Bill 1. We’re just starting to see how that’s going to have an effect. That’s the reason we’re able to finish Highway 101.

The other important measure is what the voters approved with Regional Measure 3 (last June) and the court decision (in April) to vacate or toss out that challenge that was brought against the (bridge) toll increase (funding transportation projects).

Once those monies start flowing, that’s how we get to do a lot of the work on Highway 37. But that combination of the tolling and Senate Bill 1 funds, that’s the reason we’re able to do the work, especially when you combine it with our local (sales) tax Measure (M).

Speaking of tools, has there been anything further on what will become of Highway 37 as a toll road?

The issue of tolling on (Highway) 37, there’s still a lot of details to be worked out: how and when such a funding mechanism would take place. But without tolling, I think we’re going to have a hard time delivering on that project, especially the entirety of the corridor.

The discussion about tolling the parts (of that roadway) we need to improve to address congestion relief is going to be decided in the next couple of years. Because without that toll revenue, we really are going to be in trouble trying to fix that congestion problem.

Is that something that’s going to be worked out at the local level or at the MTC level?

It’s really a partnership that’s going to involve the local, regional and state governments. It will likely require some legislation if we want to implement the concept of Highway 37 as the eighth toll bridge in the (San Francisco Bay) region. MTC manages the seven toll bridges, except the Golden Gate.

The idea of creating something new or different with Highway 37, I don’t think there is a lot of value in doing that.

Is it known yet what the design will be for the Highway 37 upgrades from Vallejo to Novato?

The strategy there is we will do an interim fix and then an ultimate project. The idea behind the interim fix is that we would do a minimal amount of shoulder widening on the existing berm that’s out there now, where the road is, and provide an additional lane of traffic. It would be either a reversible lane, like you see on the Golden Gate Bridge, where they have a movable barrier, or two lanes in each direction.

We can provide some of the congestion relief quickly, but the roadway is still going to be imperiled from sea level rise and flood events at high tide.

While we have a transportation project out there, we also have a huge opportunity when it comes to resource restoration and improving the baylands on which the highway corridor rests. And that has a lot of value, not only for the environmental enhancement, but also for absorbing storm events.

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