Federal funds offer a ray of hope for long-suffering commuters on Highway 37

“This is critical funding for putting the plan in place,” and getting the urgently needed project off the ground, said Rep. Thompson.|

Rep. Jared Huffman had every intention of arriving early for Friday afternoon’s news conference at the Sonoma Raceway. The purpose of the event was to call attention to $7 million in federal funding requested by Huffman, D-San Rafael, and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, for urgently needed improvements on Highway 37.

But Huffman arrived 10 minutes late, having gotten stuck in the soul-crushing Friday afternoon traffic on — wait for it — Highway 37.

“Took me a half hour to get here from Lakeville (Highway)” said the Congressman. “I was doing some fact finding out there.”

Huffman’s experience underscored the importance of the funding, which was included in the INVEST Act, passed by the House of Representatives last week. Congress earlier this year welcomed back the process called earmarking – Representatives securing funds for their pet projects – which had been banished more than a decade ago.

The return of “member designated projects,” as earmarks are now called, allowed both Huffman and Thompson to direct funds to a number of important projects in their districts, none more needy than this oft-bottlenecked, flood-prone stretch of road skirting the northern end of San Pablo Bay, where it has long disrupted the flow of water “in one of the most important estuaries in the state,” said Thompson, often raising his voice to be heard over the honking and idling of traffic on Highway 37, just 200 feet away.

Traversed by some 45,000 motorists per day, the 21-mile alley connecting Novato and Vallejo “is one of the worst commutes in the Bay Area, if not beyond,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose other hats include his role as a director of the county’s transportation authority.

Rabbitt expressed gratitude to Huffman and Thompson, and to the return of earmarks, “because these projects” — the dizzying array of plans for improving Highway 37, which could eventually include raising it over the water — “are so important that they need that federal clout to keep pushing forward.”

Huffman and Thompson acknowledged that the $7 million — included in a bill that still has to pass the Senate — is a very small fraction of what it will eventually cost to fix the highway’s myriad problems. “I don’t know what the final price tag is going to be,” said Thompson, “but it’s going to be huge.

“But no matter how much it is, even if you have the money ready to go, you can’t begin the project without spending this money today. This is critical funding for putting the plans in place.”

The $7 million celebrated Friday, along with $3 million from the California state Legislature for the same purpose, will be “extremely helpful in getting us through the design phase,” said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. “It will jump start the advance mitigation work.”

Near term solutions discussed at a town hall in the spring, with State Sens. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, included a potential initiative that involves removing the median fixed barrier and using a movable barrier as an interim solution to add a carpool lane for east- and westbound lanes during morning and evening commutes between Sonoma Raceway to Mare Island. A study is also being conducted for a way to raise the roadbed from Highway 101 to Sears Point.

But with the planet warming and oceans rising, pointed out Therese McMillan, executive director of the nine-county Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission, numerous sections of Highway 37 — already subject to frequent closures due to flooding — are expected to be permanently underwater by mid-century.

That will require elevating the roadway, “which is going to be a much longer, much more expensive process,” said Smith.

There’s also a rail line skirting the bay that will need to be raised, Huffman pointed out, to restore the “hydrological continuity” to the surrounding marshlands, which are severely disrupted by the highway.

Expressing wholehearted approval of that plan were John McCaull and Kendall Webster, who work on the land acquisitions team of the Sonoma Land Trust, which is highly enthusiastic about the possibility of raising the road.

“We’ve been advocating since Day 1 for an elevated highway where hydrological connections can be made underneath,” said Webster. “This is a tremendous opportunity.’

That vision is years, possibly a decade, from being realized. Asked if there might be any immediate relief for the motorists crawling along the road just behind him, Huffman said, “I think we have to manage expectations.”

“I’ll get instant gratification,” said Thompson, “just from knowing we have a plan ready to go.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.