Tab for Highway 37 flood repairs already at $1.8 million as next big storm arrives

Emergency repair work to reopen State Highway 37 last week after floodwaters forced closure of the westbound lanes for six days has already cost roughly $1.8 million, creating fortifications that will soon be tested by another major storm drenching the North Bay.

The highway, which also saw one eastbound lane closed for stretches while crews cleared the deluge of water and repaired damage to the roadway and neighboring rail tracks, reopened fully last Wednesday for the morning commute.

After a similar, 27-day closure in early 2017, the road’s vulnerability to rising water during winter storms is growing tiresome for many who rely on Highway 37, which skirts the northern shores of San Pablo Bay while connecting southern Sonoma County to Vallejo and points east.

“The fire drill that we continue to have each winter is simply unacceptable,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “I think I speak for all the agencies when I say that we need a longer-term step advanced.”

The round-the-clock recovery effort kicked off Feb. 15, one day after the heavy rain subsided, when officials from a variety of agencies met in a field along the flooded road to draw up plans to limit Novato Creek from overflowing onto the highway. The group - which included Caltrans, the public works departments of Marin County and city of Novato, a freight rail operator and the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit commuter line - worked in earnest to create a temporary access road, short-term levees to stop the tidal flow and a way for crews to begin pumping water off the critical commuter artery.

“We got together on the side and my question was, ‘Forget about who caused what to whom and who’s going to pay for the cost, what do we do as engineers?’” said Farhad Mansourian, general manager of SMART, which owns the nearby railroad corridor washed out by the Feb. 14 rains. “In the next two hours, we basically came up with a design of what needs to be done. Everybody did terrific work.”

Marin County crews installed a temporary dam and quickly installed a mix of cement barriers and sandbags to prevent further water seepage of water from a flooded pasture nearby onto the road.

The cost of that work is expected to surpass $1 million, according to a representative of the Marin County Office of Emergency Services.

Half was spent on construction of an access road out to the railroad right-of-way, which was badly damaged by the swollen creek. There, rail crews filled a 14-foot hole underneath the track with dirt and large rocks. SMART committed $100,000 to the road fabrication work and Marin County covered the rest, with officials hoping the state will reimburse some or all of the costs.

Repairing the highway, including some repaving work for a handful of ruts from the pooling water, is expected to cost about $500,000. The total is still being finalized and may still rise, according to a Caltrans spokesman.

The damage included two breaches of a levee on the south side of the highway, allowing the creek to combine with the San Pablo Bay’s high tide to flood the westbound lanes west of Atherton Avenue.

The lesser breach occurred on State Coastal Conservancy land, while a more significant one occurred within a rail corridor used by Northwestern Pacific Railroad to haul freight.

Doug Bosco, NWP Co.’s co-owner, said the company will spend about $300,000 to fix the levee - reconstructing it with the help of dump trucks and a mounted excavator before resetting the rail ties.

That work was completed Monday morning and engineers moved a full-weight train over the repaired tracks to compact the material and ensure its safety.

“We don’t usually have that much track just dangling in the air, but I am confident (it’s safe) and have confidence in the people who did it,” said Bosco, who is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat. “As a practical matter when things like this happen, we all usually roll up our sleeves and chip in and fix them.”

NWP Co. pays for routine maintenance of that section of right-of-way, while SMART is responsible for major infrastructure repairs. The short-term levees will remain in place through the winter and likely into the summer.

As another big storm threatens the region and an active flood watch is now in place through at least late Wednesday, highway and transit officials will be monitoring the vulnerable area closely. Officials hope the quick-fix repairs will endure the remainder of the rainy season before a permanent solution can be developed for the problematic roadway susceptible to sea level rise from the San Pablo Bay.

“We’re still out there working on the levee, getting ready for the next storm coming in,” said Jake Studer, NWP Co.’s general manager. “As long as the temporary repairs that were done earlier to contain the water hold, we’ll be in good shape. If it doesn’t, we’ll have some problems. It’s only so tall that we can make it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or On Twitter @kfixler.

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