Highway 37 could see $10 million in new state funding toward long-term solution

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Local and state officials said they will be closely watching a vote by a state transportation panel next week that could unlock $10 million for environmental and engineering studies needed to advance a long-term solution to flooding on a stretch of Highway 37.

The allocation would not support short-term work to address the troubled section of highway in Marin County just east of Highway 101, but it would be geared to longer-term fixes meant to raise the roadway to safeguard it from tides and rising sea levels.

“All of us are tired of the short-term fixes,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “The Band-Aid approach no longer works. This $10 million will provide us with the road map to get us to a permanent fix on that stretch.”

The Caltrans allocation would skirt a court fight that has tied up funding for work on the highway, McGuire said.

The $10 million would cover studies on the flood-prone 3.5-mile segment running east from Highway 101 in Novato to Black Point Bridge. This winter, for the second time in three years, Caltrans was forced to shutter the waterlogged segment for multiple days west of Atherton Avenue amid heavy storm runoff and tidal flooding. A permanent fix on that small piece of road alone is estimated to cost more than $880 million, according to Caltrans.

Rebuilding the entire 21-mile highway, running along the top of San Pablo Bay to Vallejo, will cost more than $3 billion, Caltrans officials have said. Beyond a pledge of $100 million generated by a voter-approved hike on area bridge tolls, no other money has been set aside for the project.

The work is not expected to get underway until at least 2030, and could be as far off as 2050.

By that time, the highway will be regularly subject to flooding from rising sea levels, according to a UC Davis study. Projections put it completely under water by 2100.

“It’s going to be vulnerable until there’s an ultimate fix, and we’re not going to get that with $10 million or even $20 million,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, chairman of a Highway 37 policy committee. “But it’s a start, and I think it’s important that it does kick start the project. Until you start, you’re not going to finish.”

Highway 37 is a major east-west connector in the North Bay, carrying up to 45,000 vehicles a day, including many commuters.

The California Transportation Commission is expected to vote Thursday on the $10 million allocation for environmental and engineering studies. The proposal is going before the 11-member commission with strong backing from local officials and commission staff.

Meanwhile, the larger pool of Highway 37 funding — the $100 million for repairs and studies along the rest the roadway — remains off limits due to an escalating court fight. The money comes from the voter-approved hike on state-owned bridges in the Bay Area.

But Regional Measure 3 is the target of two lawsuits, both of which claim the toll increase represents a tax rather than a fee, and thus should have required a two-thirds majority to pass. The first of three $1 toll increases took effect in January, but the legal challenges have held up release of the funds.

A San Francisco Superior Court judge last week tossed the second of the two suits, after doing the same with the first in April. The plaintiff in the second suit, Randall Whitney, of Contra Costa County, now has 60 days to appeal his case against the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s transit entity.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association last month appealed its case against the Bay Area Toll Authority and the state Legislature.

Conversations between the two plaintiffs have since taken place to consider combining the two appeals, according to attorney Tim Bittle, director of legal affairs for Howard Jarvis, which advocates for limiting taxes. Whitney could not be reached Friday.

It could be as long as a year before the case gets an appellate court hearing, Bittle said.

Given the legal limbo, McGuire said the coalition of local governments sought a way to free up some money to at least begin much-needed studies on the highway.

“We can’t afford to wait to settle this ridiculous lawsuit,” said McGuire. “Tens of thousands of commuters would have been held hostage if we didn’t advance this $10 million. Ultimately we’re going to need to work as a region to advance a permanent fix for the entire length of Highway 37. Those conversations continue, and we have to focus on the worst first — and the worst is from Highway 101 in Novato to Black Point.”

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

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