Traffic on Highway 37 passes Sears Point in Sonoma County on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)
The state has allocated $50 million to support tidal marsh restoration and the replacement of a flood-prone bridge as part of the planned Highway 37 overhaul east of Sears Point.
The funding comes from the Local Transportation Climate Adaptation program, a $309 million package designed to protect state roads and railways from the effects of climate change. The Highway 37 project is among 15 selected for the first round of funding.
The California Transportation Commission approved awarding the grant to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission at its meeting on Dec. 7.
The marshland enhancements are the first phase of MTC’s larger $430 million project to widen the 10-mile stretch of Highway 37 between Sears Point and Mare Island.
“This is huge, because it allows phase one of our project to get underway, and that’s super exciting,” said John Goodwin, spokesperson for MTC. Earlier projections suggested the entire project would be done in 2027, but the timeline will come into clearer focus early next year, Goodwin said.
The grant will fund the restoration of the tidal marsh known as Strip Marsh East, which is situated between the highway and San Pablo Bay, west of Mare Island. The restoration effort will support habitat for threatened and endangered species as well as protect the road from flooding and sea-level rise.
The grant also will pay for the replacement of Tolay Creek Bridge situated just east of the Highway 37 and Highway 121 interchange.
The existing bridge is about 60 feet long and is vulnerable to flooding. It will be exchanged for a longer span more than 400 feet, allowing more water flow into and out of the creek channel.
Highway 37, the 21-mile corridor connecting Marin County and Vallejo is used by 40,000 commuters daily and has become a centerpiece in the local and national debate on how to adapt to climate change.
The highway experiences frequent flooding that has forced closures spanning several days. Caltrans projects that sea-level rise threatens to regularly inundate the highway by 2040.
Ultimately, planners say the entire highway will need to be elevated, an effort costing billions of dollars. MTC’s widening project is an interim strategy.
Today, the 10 miles of the corridor between Sears Point and Mare Island bottlenecks to one lane in each direction. The pinch point causes traffic delays of up to an hour during the westbound morning commute and up to 100 minutes during the eastbound evening commute.
To address this, MTC’s proposal includes a carpool lane in each direction, which officials say is expected to cut delays in half. The new carpool lanes would be for vehicles with at least two passengers as well as for transit vehicles.
The agency received approval from the California Transportation Commission in May to begin tolling the North Bay corridor to help pay for the estimated $430 million job. A condition of the approval is that MTC must first complete the project, establish bus service on the corridor and a discount program for low-income commuters before tolling begins.
That means tolling is not expected to take effect until at least 2027. Planned carpool lanes will not be tolled.
The toll amount is proposed to be the same as that charged on the seven state-owned bridges in the Bay Area, which in 2027 would be at least $8. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission would ultimately decide what the toll amount would be. The tolls would be charged electronically using overhead toll gantries.
“The CTC grant is a big step toward assembling the various funding packages needed to meet the complex near-term and long-term challenges facing Highway 37,” MTC Chair and Napa County Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said in a statement.
“The ultimate goal is a comprehensive overhaul of the entire Highway 37 corridor to make it higher, safer, greener and built to withstand rising sea levels for many generations to come,” he said.
Marin County Supervisor Eric Lucan, who serves on the Highway 37 Policy Committee, said he is skeptical about the interim project.
“We know Highway 37 has a huge price tag on it, and funds coming in is typically a good thing,” he said. “However, I’m cautiously optimistic. I still think we need to think the 37-121 interchange.”
Lucan said the lighted intersection of the two highways gets clogged with vehicles daily. Lucan suggests that planners take a comprehensive look at how to improve traffic flow.
Additionally, he said SMART’s freight rail tracks cross perpendicular over Highway 37 just east of the intersection. Grade separation could minimize the disruption to vehicular traffic, he said.
Meanwhile, planners are in the environmental review stage of the estimated $1.6 billion project to elevate a 2.5-mile section of Highway 37 in Marin. The project area is between the Highway 101 interchange in Novato to the Atherton Avenue exit.
The first phase of the project would include rebuilding the Novato Creek Bridge onto a 35-foot-high causeway by June 2029. The second phase, aimed for completion in 2049, would rebuild the remaining sections of highway as a 114-foot-wide causeway including a bicycle and pedestrian path.
A copy of a draft environmental analysis can be found at bit.ly/48znTpt.