West Coast
Traffic on Highway 37 passes Sears Point in Sonoma on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

CA - Talks on Highway 37’s future underway as sea-level threat looms

For generations, the 21-mile route linking Marin County and Vallejo has been essential for commuters and travelers.

Now Highway 37 has become something more — a centerpiece in a growing debate on how the Bay Area and California should respond to climate change and when politicians should bite the bullet to spend the billions of dollars needed to deal with it.

Caltrans is studying a plan to widen a traffic-prone, 10-mile stretch of the highway at a cost of nearly half a billion dollars while it comes up with a longer-term fix. But some advocates say they should skip that step while significant funding is available and do what all parties agree will eventually need to be done by elevating the road.

“The ultimate project achieves these two goals,” said Warner Chabot, executive director of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, a nonprofit research group in Richmond. “It produces the largest climate adaptation, sea-level rise and wetlands restoration project on the west coast of North America, and it also solves the intolerable traffic congestion and safety issues with a nature-based solution that meets the equity needs of thousands of commuters. That’s the ultimate magic of the elevated causeway.”

The problem is finding the estimated $6 billion to $8 billion needed to build the elevated causeway before sea-level rise begins to regularly inundate and cut off the road by 2040, as projected by Caltrans.

Originally opened as a toll road in 1928 in an area once underwater before settlers diked and drained the San Francisco Bay wetlands, the highway now experiences flooding that has forced road closures during high tides and storms.

Advocates for the elevated highway say there is a window of opportunity that might not reopen with a $100 billion state budget surplus and the recently passed $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill.

“If you keep kicking the can down the road, which they’ve been doing for decades now, it’s just going to cost more with inflation,” said Ariana Rickard, public policy and funding manager with the Sonoma Land Trust, a nonprofit conservation group. “And we just don’t know if we’re going to have another historic budget surplus. And then where is the money going to come from when it’s flooded?”

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