Hope is coming for those stuck one of the Bay Area's worst commutes: State Route 37

Hope is coming for those stuck one of the Bay Area's worst commutes: State Route 37. 

The east-west corridor in the North Bay is chronically congested, and runs through a flood plain that regularly goes underwater.

"Over a two-year period, the highway has been closed a whopping twenty days due to flooding," state Senator Mike McGuire told a crowd of about 100 people Thursday evening.

McGuire, with Marin County Supervisor Judy Arnold, hosted a town hall meeting on future plans for the troubled 20-mile stretch. 

Many in the audience were hoping to hear of a replacement: an elevated causeway or bridge between Novato and Vallejo.

"I commuted on Highway 37 for 36 years and I know it intensely," said one speaker, urging planners to accelerate improvements.

The artery carries 50,000 vehicles daily, and at peak times what should be a 20-minute crossing can take two hours. "It's terrible, they need to figure something out, it's insane," said one driver, among thousands stuck in a miles-long backup even as the meeting was underway. 

Planning has intensified during the past year, with agencies and public entities coming together on what they call a "Resilient State Route 37." 

Funding has been identified, from the voter-approved toll hike measure last year.  

One possibility is construction of a roundabout to replace the traffic signal at Sears Point to ease the bottleneck.

"Thousands of hours have been wasted and those hours rack up and our residents deserve better," said McGuire during his presentation. 

He was flanked by various transportation representatives, including Caltrans.  

Currently, most of the highway is one lane each direction, divided by a center barrier.  

Building a bigger highway over the San Pablo Bay wetlands from Sears Point to Mare Island would cost a few billion dollars. 

To do that, planners envision the route becoming a toll road, as it was when it was built 100 years ago.   
"We have the opportunity to charge a reasonable toll, similar to what you see with the rest of the toll bridges in the Bay Area," said Andrew Fremier of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Such a viaduct, however, would take more than twenty years to accomplish, so short-term solutions are being pursued first. 

In the $100million range, a movable lane on the existing highway, which could change direction depending on commute time. 

"Something like you see on the Golden Gate Bridge," explained Fremier, "where you squeeze in a third lane and use a zipper truck that moves the barrier every day." 

Another possibility: converting the existing shoulder into an additional lane at peak times, as was done on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. 

Either of those options would take about five years, due to engineering and environmental review. 

"That's not soon enough," responded another driver, idling in traffic. "Especially with more people moving further out, it's just going to get worse."

 McGuire noted environmental concerns and rising sea level weren't factors when the highway was constructed. 

"If the state could do this over, we wouldn't have built a highway in some of the most sensitive wetlands around," said McGuire.

He is gratified that $10 million has been allocated to study the Marin segment of SR 37, between Highway 101 and Sears Point. McGuire wants the roadway raised onto pilings or an earthen berm so it's no longer submerged.

Flooding in 2017 and 2019, caused by tides, storms, runoff, and broken levees was disruptive to the economy and local residents.  

"When the highway closes, those cars are routed through city streets not designed for that traffic," said Novato Mayor Eric Lucan.
"We're not talking about blocked driveways, but an entire community with a wall of cars in front of them." 

During both closures, emergency repairs managed to re-open the highway in time. 

As a new rainy season approaches, Caltrans will be proactive by pre-positioning barriers, installing flood gates, fixing drainage, and reinforcing pavement.

Those preparations were reassuring, but not the enduring remedies the audience was listening for.     

"It has gotten worse and worse every day," said one speaker, "and it's not just when it rains or floods, it's all the time."