New Highway 37 planning structure elevates focus on environment, San Pablo Baylands

There is distrust among some who believe a short-term plan does more harm than good|

The people who are planning the long-needed improvements on heavily congested Highway 37 are faced with more than just the amount of time commuters spend in gridlock each day en route to and from jobs in Marin and Sonoma counties.

There also are climate and environmental concerns along the sensitive shoreline of San Pablo Bay — the focus of tidelands restoration investments topping $600 million already. The diminished marshes and wetlands that once lined the greater San Francisco Bay are productive habitats that foster wildlife, filter water, sequester carbon and can help buffer the land from sea level rise.

But the varying needs don’t always line up easily. What solves one problem could exacerbate another.

And there is distrust among some who believe a short-term plan to widen the eastern stretch of 37 between Sears Point and Mare Island on slightly raised berms does more harm than good, despite the cost and time involved in a long-term plan to raise the whole highway.

They include Congressman Jared Huffman, who has, as he attests, “been lobbying nonstop” to change the approach to the highway redesign, moving directly to a full causeway instead of a freeway widening project “straight out of the 1980s.”

But in an effort to assure environmental stakeholders that their interests are on equal footing as work on the 21-mile highway corridor goes forward, the multicounty State Route 37 Partnership, currently dominated by transportation agencies, will now include key leaders from “environmentally oriented” state groups.

And it will have a new name: The Baylands Restoration and Transportation Expanded Partnership.

California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot will join state Transportation Secretary Toks Omishakin on the leadership group. Also included are State Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham and executive officers from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

In addition, leaders from two North Bay tribes, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, as well as congressional and state legislative representatives will now have permanent places in the leadership structure, alongside existing representatives from the four counties through which the highway runs.

Environmental organizations and agencies already have had input on the project. The goal of the revised partnership “is just to create more balance,” said Sara Aminzadeh, deputy secretary of external affairs for the California Natural Resources Agency

Brokered by Natural Resources and the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the new structure formalizes an agreement made last year to elevate environmental interests and demonstrate a commitment to bayland restoration and other ecological objectives as part of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the corridor.

“This corridor can be a national model for climate resilient transportation infrastructure, and we’re continuing to pursue federal funding to accelerate this important work,” Crowfoot said in a news release.

The reframed partnership arose from tensions over the last decade as local and regional transportation agencies turned their attention to increasingly dense traffic on a highway that carries 40,000 vehicles a day between Highway 101 in Novato and Interstate 80 in Solano County.

The California Transportation Commission says travel time through the clogged corridor can reach an hour during peak morning westbound traffic, and 100 minutes eastbound in the evenings. The 10-mile bottleneck between Sears Point/Highway 121 and Mare Island, where there’s only one lane in each direction, is a soul-crushing trial.

It’s also a symptom of the region’s housing affordability crisis, which prevents many residents from living where they work. About 85% of State Route 37 travelers have household incomes below the area median income, according to the California Transportation Commission. People of color make 28% of the trips.

Those equity issues have largely driven the urgency to take action.

An easy fix, relative to others, might be widening the road to add more lanes — which is part of the near-term plan. A roughly estimated $430 million project expected to be underway in 2026 includes adding a high-occupancy-vehicle lane in each direction, as well as improvements at Highway 121 to ease congestion there.

But it’s not enough, or even desirable, to bring tons of dirt fill into the tidal area, especially since it still leaves the roadway vulnerable to rising sea level rise in the near future. San Pablo Bay waters are expected to begin flooding the road by 2040 and inundating the central section of the highway permanently as soon as 2050.

There’s also the fact that low-lying stretches on the western end of the highway are increasingly subject to flooding during heavy winter rains that swell Novato Creek and other waterways, closing the highway and requiring detours, sometimes for days or weeks at a time.

During January and February of 2017, detours were required for 27 days. Last year, flooding shut down part of the road for four days in January. In 2019, a levee break closed it for eight.

Then there’s the setting: wetlands and salt marsh, some in various stages of restoration to improve habitat and help buffer the shoreline against rising seas and storm surge.

Highway 37 passes across the 19,000-acre San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge and through a number of sites where substantial investments in tidal marsh and wetland projects have been made or are planned to increase resilience and allow streams to drain more freely into the bay, alleviating flood risk and improving habitat.

The tidal lands also lie in the Pacific Flyway, providing critical forage for millions of water fowl that stop to rest during seasonal migrations from the Arctic tundra to South America and back.

Nonprofit groups like Sonoma Land Trust, among others, have spent decades pursuing projects across some 30,000 acres of San Pablo Baylands, where 19th and early 20th century farmers diked and drained the land for agriculture, according to the California Coastal Conservancy. More than $600 million has been invested in land acquisition, contouring and reseeding tidelands with appropriate plant-life so levies can be breached to allow the water back in.

Voters also have shown their support for such work, in 2016 approving a nine-county, 20-year parcel tax expected to raise about $500 million for Bay Area-wide tideland efforts.

Though scientists estimate up to 95% of the Bay Area’s baylands were lost to past farmland conversion and urban development, much of the rim of San Pablo Bay remains particularly suitable for restoration because there is so little development — besides Highway 37.

A coalition of the region’s wetland land managers and other stakeholders have consistently petitioned for a fully elevated causeway between Novato and Vallejo that would allow for restoration efforts and improve stream connectivity, as well as alleviate flooding.

That is, in fact, what transportation officials hope to do long-term. But it’s expected to cost up to $8 billion and take several decades to achieve in phases. The bottleneck of two-lane road east of Sears Point, they say, can’t wait that long.

Equity demands a faster fix, Kevin Chen, assistant director for design and project delivery with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, told Highway 37 redesign decision-makers earlier this month.

“The amount of congestion that folks are stuck in traffic on a daily basis is just not equitable for those who have to travel on this corridor,” Chen said.

The 10-mile widening project includes funding to raise and greatly lengthen the Tolay Creek Bridge near Sears Point, creating a wider channel for the creek to drain. It also will allow restoration work there to begin in time for sediments to stabilize before the bay level reaches to high a point, said Ariana Rickard, public policy and funding program manager for Sonoma Land Trust.

The plan additionally includes restoration of a long and narrow marsh between Highway 37 and San Pablo Bay, which has become desiccated and destabilized. Both represent significant wins for environmental stewards.

Rickard said Sonoma Land Trust and other groups appreciated the level of engagement that has come about over time, especially with improved coordination and communication over the past year.

Separately, Caltrans and the Transportation Authority of Marin are mounting a $180 million project to widen and increase the height of the bridge over Novato Creek to prevent flooding and winter-season closures.

But that project, Save the Bay Executive Director David Lewis said, acknowledges the need for lifting the entire roadway, providing environmental benefits instead of negative impacts.

Instead, “they have continued to resist accelerating elevating more of the roadway on the eastern half from Sears Point to Mare Island, and they have different reasons that they give at different times,” Lewis said.

Huffman, D-San Rafael, said he believes that an elevated, climate-resilient project would qualify for a larger amount of federal infrastructure funding than it would otherwise. Improvements at Sears Point and a temporary, third lane for commute-hour traffic could ease congestion in the short-term.

Otherwise, it amounts to spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a road that can only last 15 years, on a route that’s going to be hard to argue should get more funding — billions of dollars worth — a few years after the short-term project is complete, he said

"This wetland restoration opportunity is the largest on the West Coast,“ Huffman said. ”If we were to elevate it (the highway) it could be a profound carbon solution … When you build this widened freeway, you foreclose that. You take it off the table.“

But Aminzadeh said having department secretaries and directors involved in decision making means they own the environmental outcomes. “It creates a degree of accountability and reassurance that I think is warranted for this project,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or On X (Twitter) @MaryCallahanB.

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