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Agencies form partnership to solve congestion, flooding on Highway 37

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MARIN COUNTY – Possible progress has been made toward improving one of the Bay Area's most problematic stretches of road, state Highway 37 between Solano and Marin counties. 

The roadway has been plagued with flooding and congestion for years. One thing everyone agrees on, from stakeholders to commuters who regularly find themselves at a dead standstill for up to two hours, is that the highway needs improvement.

State and local transportation agencies on Wednesday announced a partnership agreement to implement more pressing improvements to the highway while a longer-term solution to the problem is hammered out.

The partnership is between the California State Transportation Agency, the California Natural Resources Agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Caltrans District 4, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. 

"This agreement is the first step toward a re-envisioned Highway 37 that is resilient to sea level rise, protects critical marsh and tidal habitats, reduces transportation inequities and incorporates bicycle, pedestrian, transit and carpool options for travelers," the California Natural Resources Agency said in a statement announcing the pact.

Most at issue are the effects of climate change, which will raise sea levels and completely submerge the 21-mile stretch in 20 years if a solution is not found, according to state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa. 

Caltrans has also warned of sea level rise affecting the stretch of highway.  

"Nearly the entire length between Novato and Vallejo is predicted to become permanently submerged as sea levels rise if modifications are not made," the agency said last year.  

Dodd said that one plan is to create a raised causeway, which he estimates would cost "billions of dollars."  

Last February, Dodd introduced the idea of creating a toll for the highway in order to help raise the estimated billions needed to overhaul the route, an announcement that caused groans across social media from Bay Area residents who have seen steadily rising toll costs for most major arteries. 

The near-term projects the partnership proposes include the Sears Point to Mare Island Improvement Project, which would add lanes in a 10-mile stretch, and adding an additional carpool lane in each direction that would be tolled. 

The long-term plan proposed is to build an elevated highway, thus avoiding future flooding and making less impact on the wetlands ecosystem that currently flanks the road. 

U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said last August that politicians should "bite the bullet" and spend the billions necessary to deal with Highway 37 by simply building the elevated causeway first. 

The estimated cost of elevating the roadway runs between $6 to $8 billion, according to Huffman, but just jumping in and elevating it now could save money in the long run, he said. The representative would like to bypass the short-term solutions posed by agencies and dive right into building the elevated span.

Huffman has been very vocal about his doubts about politician and agency "defeatism," saying that short-term projects will hamper the building of a raised causeway that he said would "never" happen as a result, not to mention using critical time to save the wetlands. 

Huffman also said that deciding to just build the new causeway would help the project compete for necessary federal grants.

On Wednesday, Huffman again raised his doubts about the partnership's short-term plans. 

"The interim project is quite controversial and does not have the 'consensus' they have previously represented," he said. "Despite these suggestions of potential progress this partnership agreement is carefully worded to avoid any binding, enforceable provisions."

Huffman added that the commitments made in the agreement are "vague" and will require pressure from his office and others to ensure that they translate into actual improvements. 

Indeed, the statement released by the agencies Wednesday did not provide a timeline. 

Metropolitan Transportation Commission chair and Napa County Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza touted the agreement in a statement released Wednesday. 

"The partnership agreement really highlights how important it is to make both near-term and long-term improvements to the Highway 37 corridor," he said. "This is a team effort and the time to get to work is now."  

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