Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Highway 37 project in Vallejo nears completion

'Perserverance' at a high price
53 years after conception, project nears birth

By MATTHIAS GAFNI, Times-Herald staff writer

The Highway 37 project through Vallejo has overcome obstacles of almost Biblical proportions.

The route's plans had to endure an enormous earthquake, historic floods, a devastating oil embargo, and the pleas for an endangered mouse and bird. These events all transpired since transportation officials first discussed fixing the roadway - during Harry S. Truman's presidency.

The year was 1952.

Despite everything thrown in its path, that stretch of Highway 37, from Interstate 80 to the Napa River Bridge, will be completed this fall - more than 50 years, and 10 Truman successors - after officials first felt it was needed.

Major highway projects take money, political pressure, timing, luck and, well É money. This 3.8-mile stretch of roadway has had some of each over the half century, but not until recently did all those factors line up.

Vallejo Mayor Tony Intintoli Jr. dealt with the project along the way during his lengthy political career.

"The first conversation I participated in with respect to that roadway was some 20-plus years ago," Intintoli said.

"I'm just delighted to have it done. I'm just glad it's (nearly) completed," the mayor said.

Former Mayor Terry Curtola began his work on the project in the 1970s.

"I've been to six or eight groundbreakings since the early '70s," Curtola laughed. "It never seemed to get completed. But now it finally looks like it will.

"There was always some sort of delays, predominantly environmental," Curtola added.

There was never any question that the old highway, which runs through a major commercial section of the city, needed to be re-done. It has created decades of traffic headaches with its three stop lights.

"It'll cut so much time there," said Steve Cobb, Caltrans spokesman. "I think more people will start using the facility once they start realizing the time saved."

The overpass also will eliminate the busy and dangerous intersection of Highways 37 and 29.

The section became more and more outdated with recent growth, Cobb said.

"Solano County is growing and South Napa County is growing. American Canyon is now a city," Cobb said.

Long before the recent growth, lawmakers called for the stretch of roadway to be changed to a four-lane freeway.

During the 1950s and '60s, officials struggled to find a funding source for the highway expansion. But the project remained the county's top priority.

However, in the '70s, bad luck struck. The country suffered through an oil embargo and began withholding gas tax revenue to guard against inflation. Later that decade, Gov. Jerry Brown de-emphasized highway transportation and cut funding.

Mother Nature tried to kill the project in 1980, three years after a levee break flooded the White Slough area. The floods created protected wetlands and nearly insurmountable environmental concerns, including the protection of the salt marsh harvest mouse and clapper rail bird.

Then, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake took most transportation funds and diverted them toward seismic retrofits of bridges and overpasses.

By the 1990s, officials found an environmental solution, and the project was OKed.

Now, with the final phase nearing completion, drivers will travel a route along an entirely different path, most of it raised over Vallejo. The main undertaking has been an overpass, eliminating the dangerous Highway 37 and 29 intersection.

"It'll affect Vallejoans. So many of us use that corridor. It will speed up traffic a lot and reduce the opportunities for road rage," Mayor Intintoli laughed. "It's pretty maddening going through there and it has been for a number of years."

Curtola foresees a rebirth for businesses along the freeway.

"The worst part in taking so long was letting a lot of that area decay," he said.

Former mayor Curtola can't believe the $124 million project will be completed by Thanksgiving.

"I'm going to be really tickled. It's going to be a tremendous asset for the city," Curtola said. "It was a long time coming, but perseverance pays off."

- E-mail Matthias Gafni at mgafni@thnewsnet.com or call 553-6825.

Red tape, disasters span 53 years

1952. State transportation officials study what then was known as Sears Point Road Freeway; lawmakers discuss turning Highway 37 into a toll road to fund it.

1955. Toll road idea scrapped when California Highway Commission agrees to make Highway 37 a four-lane freeway. The next year, Solano County enters into agreement on new highway.

Late 1950s. State says improvements on the Vallejo stretch of Highway 37 are Solano County's highest priority.

1965. Vallejo's Country Club Crest residents, who would lose their homes for the new route, protest that it should go through the golf course, then by Lake Chabot. Enough money is gathered to complete a small section, including Napa River Bridge to Sacramento Street, which becomes a four-lane freeway.

1970. Chief state highway engineer calls the future of road construction in Solano County "dismal." Federal government begins withholding gas tax revenue to guard against inflation. Later, Federal Highway Administration OKs a plan for that stretch of highway nearly identical to old plan.

1971. Vallejo officials sign agreement for a four-lane freeway. Officials target 1977-78 for construction, at a cost of $16.5 million.

Plans halted during most of 1970s, as inflation and oil embargo hamper state's ability to raise funds. Portion of four lanes, from Sage Street to Interstate 80, is completed.

1975-83. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown's administration de-emphasizes highway construction efforts.

1977. Heavy rains cause a Napa River levee to break, flooding 468 acres of developable land, an area now called White Slough. Once flooded, the area became protected tidal wetlands that Caltrans could not fill to widen the freeway in that area.

1980. California Transportation Commission kills the project. Caltrans is left with 50 parcels of land, under six feet of water from floods.

1982. Freeway resurrected, as state officials deem it a "long lead time" project. With no money to fund it, Caltrans studies it once again, and as it did decades before designating it as Solano's top priority project.

1983. Officials from more than 50 state, local and federal agencies meet to discuss White Slough area environmental and flooding impacts.

1985/86. Project is broken into two phases: Phase 1, costing $7.5 million, and Phase 2, $19 million. The next year, new estimates push Phase 1 to $8.9 million while Phase 2 rockets to $39 million.

Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a powerful environmental group, unveils a more expensive $73 million viaduct proposal. The alternative would have less impact on the wetlands, but provide no flood protection. The environmentally sensitive area includes endangered species such as the salt marsh harvest mouse and clapper rail bird. Plan is deemed unfundable.

1987. Funding improves, Caltrans anticipates bidding the first project out by 1989, and construction beginning. Phase Two expected to begin in 1990-91.

1989. Twelve years after the floods, deadly Loma Prieta earthquake forces diversion of major transportation funding toward seismic retrofitting of bridges and highway overpasses.

1990. Assembly Majority Leader Tom Hannigan, D-Fairfield, proposes widening Vallejo stretch of roadway to four lanes. Enacted plan avoids White Slough issue by offering 52 acres of wetlands mitigation in exchange for filling 13 acres of White Slough.

- With the relocation of Marine World Africa USA to Vallejo, the Highway 37 project is split in half. Vallejo officials get the section from Sage Street to Highway 29 converted to four lanes, along with an overpass at Fairgrounds Drive in 1992.

1995-99. Vallejo officials pass White Slough Specific Area Plan, but by then heavy debate begins on another section of Highway 37, referred to as "Blood Alley." The stretch, from the Napa River Bridge to Sears Point Raceway, shifts focus from the Vallejo section.

However, city officials see widening as a solution to traffic problems, access issues for Mare Island, habitat enhancement, flood control, public access and flood control measures. The 1995 project plans include an elevated roadway, a dirt-and-rock fill roadway or a combination of the two. An idea for a tunnel running under Vallejo is rejected.

An overpass at the Highway 29 and 37 intersection was added in 1997.

Funding problems again push any possible construction start date back to 1999, although Caltrans warns that could be pushed back three to four years.

Later in 1999, the City Council approves the White Slough compromise, and start date is pushed back to 2001.

2002-05. First phase of project is completed when Guadalcanal Village is converted to a working wetlands when about 9,350 cubic meters of fill brings the basin to the proper height.

Phase 2 includes a Sacramento Street overpass, a bike path along White Slough and the widening of that stretch to four lanes. All four lanes open in May 2005.

Phase 3 widens the remaining section to four lanes and includes an overpass over the 37-29 intersection.

November 2005. The $124 million project is scheduled for completion.

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