Now Interstate 37 is something more—a focus in a growing debate about how the Bay Area and California will respond to climate change and when politicians should spend the billions of dollars needed to deal with it.
Caltrans is studying a plan to expand a traffic-prone 10-mile highway at a cost of nearly half a billion dollars while it comes up with a long-term solution. But some advocates say they should skip this step while significant funding is available and do what all sides agree should eventually be done by lifting the road.
“The final project achieves both of these goals,” said Warner Chabot, executive director of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, a nonprofit research group in Richmond. “Producing the largest climate adaptation, sea-level rise and wetland restoration project on the West Coast of North America, it solves the potentially unbearable traffic congestion and safety issues with a nature-based solution that meets the equity needs of thousands of travelers. That is the ultimate magic of the High Bridge.”
The problem is finding the estimated $6-8 billion needed to build a high bridge before sea-level rise begins to flood regularly and cut the road by 2040, Caltrans predicted.
Originally opened as a toll road in 1928 in a formerly underwater area before settlers dived and drained the San Francisco Bay wetlands, the highway now suffers from flooding that has forced roads to close during tides and storms.
Highway advocates say there is a window of opportunity that may not reopen with a $100 billion state budget surplus and a recently passed $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill.
said Arianna Ricard, director of public policy and finance at the Sonoma Land Trust, a nonprofit conservation group. We do not know if we have another historical surplus in the budget. And then where will the money come from when it gets submerged? ”
A group of Bay Area lawmakers called on Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders to allocate $6 billion to begin planning and building repairs to Interstate 37. The legislature returned from summer recess on Monday.
Officials from Caltrans and other project partners such as the Urban Transportation Commission — the Bay Area Transportation and Planning Funding Agency — are considering a temporary project to extend 10 miles of the highway from Sears Point in Sonoma County to Mare Island from two to as many as four lanes, with the addition of a motorway in every direction.
The 10-mile bottleneck can add nearly 70 minutes of additional travel time during morning rush hour and commute hours, according to Caltrans. There is no transit service along the trail. The Urban Transportation Commission estimates that delays result in approximately $85 million in economic losses each year.
Caltrans spokesperson Bart Ney said peak-hour travel times are expected to increase to five times the current level by 2045 if the highway is not expanded.
The $430 million project will require thousands of truckloads of packing in protected wetlands to expand the highway barrier. Caltrans is due to complete an environmental review of the project in the coming months with plans to start construction by 2025 and open new corridors by 2026.
Rebecca Long, director of legislative affairs for the Urban Transportation Commission, said all project partners agree that Interstate 37 will need to be replaced or moved before 2040. However, she said, this massive project still has to undergo extensive study and environmental review before the design is recommended. final, not to mention securing an estimated $6 billion to build it. Caltrans estimates that construction could take two decades or more to complete.
“This funding should come from the capital, Sacramento, and it will compete with all other climate-resilient projects nationwide,” Long said. “It’s not realistic to think that we can have all that money in the next two years. We don’t think that’s acceptable and members of the Bay Area delegation in Sacramento are not comfortable telling their constituents that, sorry you have to put up with unbreakable traffic conditions for the next 10 years” .
The four-lane highway will reduce travel time during peak congestion from 26 to 30 minutes and is estimated to reduce crashes by 14%, according to the commission.
To help pay for long-term repair and eventual expansion, Caltrans and project partners are proposing to start charging after the project expansion is complete.
The fee will also be used to provide similar funds for up to $250 million in state and federal grants. The legislature is considering a bill by state Senator Bill Dodd, D-NAPA, that would levy a fee of at least $1 but not more than tolls for two-axle vehicles on state-owned bridges in the Bay Area, not including the Bay Bridge. . The state bridge crossing fee is $7 but will rise to $8 in January 2025. Dodd could not be reached for comment.
While state agencies say the expanded highway will eventually be removed in favor of a raised bridge, U.S. Representative Jared Hoffman, whose district straddles the North Coast, said that statement “doesn’t pass the straight-face test.”
“No one is going to take down a new $500 million highway 15 years after it was built,” said Hoffman, a Democrat who lives in San Rafael. “If you implement this project as they suggested, you will never get the bridge, this wetland complex will never be restored, and you will never get the multiple benefits that everyone loves about the final project. We just have to be honest about it.”
Hoffman said he is urging state agencies to shift priorities to building the bridge, which he said could help the project compete for federal grants. However, he said there appears to be a reluctance on the part of state agencies to take on these large projects.
“A lot of our transportation planners have seen what happened to the high-speed rail and other projects, and there’s the kind of defeatism and skepticism that says you can’t really do big, bold projects anymore,” Hoffman said. “So they kind of dusted off the game handbook from the ’70s and tried to expand the highway.”
Long said the expansion project would include other environmental benefits such as widening the Tulay Creek Bridge to allow more tidal impact that could help build wetlands and allow them to migrate as the ocean rises.
“Without the temporary project that brings transportation money to the table, there are no resources to do it,” she said.
Tenth District Assemblyman Mark Levine, who represents Marin and southern Sonoma County, was among Bay Area legislators who called on the state to allocate $6 billion for the long-term project. While he said the expansion of the highway is not the right fix for Interstate 37 in the long run, he said there is still a lot of work to be done on the elevated highway proposal before it is ready for financing.
“I don’t think the planning and resources are there to do the big dream plan in the near term to solve a huge problem for thousands of commuters every day,” said Levine, a Democrat who lives in Greenbra.
Senator Mike McGuire, whose county includes Marin and the North Coast, said the state alone would not be able to pay for the high bridge. He said negotiations between local, state and federal officials are underway, but he did not say which project he believed should receive priority.
“The bottom line is this. North Bay commuters have been suffering for a long time,” said McGuire, a Democrat who lives in Healdsburg. “Year after year, they sit on one of the worst commutes in the entire Bay Area and that is no longer acceptable. North Bay passengers deserve solutions, and that’s what we’re working through right now.”
Environmental agencies and organizations view the bridge project as a way to allow up to 20,000 acres of wetland to be restored. San Francisco Bay shrank dramatically after the gold rush as settlers drained the wetlands and made way for roads, agricultural fields, and development.
A regional goal to restore about 100,000 of the 200,000 acres of lost wetlands has been in place since the late 1990s, with more than half of that goal completed.
About 82% of the San Pablo Bay wetlands crossed by Interstate 37 have been lost to development and drainage. However, this habitat is also one of the least developed along the bay, making it a prime location for completing a restoration goal, said Rijkaard of the Sonoma Land Trust.
“It’s the biggest and best opportunity in the Bay Area to restore the tidal ecosystem on a landscape scale,” Ricard said.
The highway expansion will require the state to get approval from regulators to obtain large amounts of sediment in protected state and federally protected wetlands, such as the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge and the Napa Sonoma Marshes Wildlife Area. These are wetlands that are home to endangered species such as the salt marsh and railroad harvest rat in Ridgway.
Ann Morkel, who ran the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge from 2012 to 2020, wondered if the expanded project would be able to get approvals in time for construction in 2025, if that possible. The expansion project will require the acquisition of protected property and the permanent removal of wetland habitats. As a result, the state will have to create new wetlands elsewhere to make up for the losses, but Morkill said there aren’t many areas left that aren’t really affected.
“The idea of interpolation, I can’t imagine it could ever be allowed and certainly not in time because of the dilution needed,” she said. “You’re talking about highly sensitive habitats and species.”
The US Fish and Wildlife Service did not respond to requests for comment.
Craig Whitman, director of the Habitat Conservation Program at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the agency has engaged in discussions with project leaders. He said Caltrans’s goal to start construction in 2025 could be possible with a “straightforward, well-planned and coordinated project,” although that will be determined by what the final design will look like.
Kristina Toms, a scientist with the San Francisco Bay Water Quality Monitoring Board, said another concern about expanding the project is that it will compete for sediment used in wetland projects across the bay.
“Finding clean dirt is hard, and it’s expensive,” Toms said. “Sourcing is expensive, and moving it is expensive. There are a lot of competing needs for these materials across the region.”
By raising the highway and eventually removing the berm, the project will essentially mitigate any impacts from the bridge’s construction by allowing the wetlands to reconnect with the tides, Toms said. Restoration organizations are working to restore as much wetland habitat as possible before 2030 before rising oceans threaten to inundate them. By removing the highway, Toms said, the wetlands will be able to migrate north and provide more protection from flooding.
“The highway is a kind of barrier to what we call the strip swamps on the bay,” she said. “The highway in its current formation makes it impossible for that ribbon marsh to migrate inland. This will be an important part of the story in North Bay as it responds to climate change.”