Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The New Highway 37: 50 Years in the Making

Article Last Updated: Wednesday, Aug 10, 2005 - 11:38:20 pm PDT

Construction on the new and improved Highway 37 through Vallejo is expected to open with a dedication ceremony in September. (Judith Sagami/Daily Republic photos)

The New Highway 37: 50 Years in the Making
By Barry Eberling

VALLEJO - It's been a long time coming - more than a generation.

More than a generation of people having to stop for traffic lights on Highway 37 through Vallejo. More than a generation of rush-hour traffic backups that have grown increasingly worse.

In the late 1950s, California made fixing the Vallejo stretch of Highway 37 the transportation priority for Solano County. The project is just about finished after four decades of detours and stalls.

"It's a new freeway," Solano Transportation Authority Executive Director Daryl Halls said.

A short freeway segment, to be sure, but one through one of the more congested road stretches in Solano County.

The new, improved Highway 37 should open in September with a dedication ceremony. Then passing through Vallejo on the freeway should be a breeze. No more traffic signals. When drivers come to Mini Drive, Broadway and Highway 29, they'll go up and over on an elevated roadway with a decorative wave pattern stamped onto the concrete sides.

Highway 37 links Interstate 80 in Solano County at Vallejo with Interstate 101 in Marin County at Novato. It is a major east/west regional route.

But a 2.5-mile Vallejo segment has been a weak link, causing congestion for both drivers on the highway and those trying to cross it on Vallejo streets.

Vallejo Mayor Anthony Intintoli recently drove from his home on Georgia Street in Vallejo to Napa. What is usually a 20-minute trip took him 40 minutes. A lot of his wait came on Broadway trying to cross Highway 37.

"You just sit there forever trying to get through," Intintoli said.

The wait for a better Highway 37 will soon be over. But what a long wait it has been - the Highway 37 improvements have taken almost 50 years to go from the idea stage to reality.

A state Department of Transportation history of the project outlines the tangled tale.

Design work on a new, improved Highway 37 began around 1960. But money grew short around 1963 and the design work stalled, even though the state had begun buying right-of-way.

Then the state spent a few years looking at making an improved Highway 37 a toll road. Other highway projects in Solano County suddenly looked more pressing and got state money. Only a few sections of the Highway 37 project got built, near Mare Island in 1967 and near I-80 in 1975.

Caltrans under Gov. Jerry Brown in 1975 began de-emphasizing highway projects in favor of mass transit and bicycles, the Caltrans report said. Further Highway 37 improvements got shelved, it said.

In 1977, dikes on the Napa River breached, creating tidal wetlands in the White Slough area. Widening this two-lane section to four lanes would now take environmental permits from numerous agencies.

The Highway 37 project resurfaced in 1982, with more plans and studies following. Not all plans met with universal acclaim. County Supervisor Barbara Kondylis said one design would have taken out houses and gone through the middle of marshland.

"The original plan was pathetic," Kondylis said. "It was a huge, huge swathe of concrete."

An interchange at Fairgrounds Drive near Marine World Africa U.S.A. got built in 1992. But the White Slough wetlands continued to pose a challenge.

A 1989 state law sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Hannigan allowed for fill on up to 13 acres of wetlands. In return, Caltrans would replace lost tidal wetlands by a four-to-one margin.

Then came plans and environmental studies. State, federal and local agencies and neighborhood groups worked together. Finally, in 2000, construction began.

Besides improving traffic, Kondylis hopes the Highway 37 project's environmental improvements help the water flow better in the White Slough area. This could improve the smell.

"It got really stinky, because the water just sat and sat and sat," Kondylis said.

Intintoli said the improved Highway 37 will make it easier to get to Mare Island. It will be easier to get from the Holiday Inn near Six Flags Marine World to downtown, he said. Vallejo has targeted both areas for major renovations.

Halls and Kondylis noted the four-lane stretch of Highway 37 through Vallejo shrinks to two lanes west of Mare Island. Over time, the bottleneck there will grow worse, Halls said.

But September will be a time for celebration. Highway 37 should be up to freeway standards all the way from I-80 to Mare Island - finally.

"This is really going to help for a number of years," Halls said.

Reach Barry Eberling at 425-4646 Ext. 232 or at

Highway 37 Milestones

1955 - First Caltrans records that mention improving Highway 37 in Vallejo.

Late 1950s - Caltrans makes Highway 37 its priority for Solano County.

1963 - Caltrans halts design work because money is short.

1967 - Highway 37 improved near Mare Island.

1975 - State shelves further Highway 37 improvements.

1977 - Dikes on Napa River breached, creating tidal wetlands near stretch of Highway 37.

1980 - Agreements between state, Vallejo and county on Highway 37 routes rescinded.

1982 - Caltrans again begins looking at Highway 37 improvements.

1983 - Caltrans presents three project alternatives.

1984 - Caltrans, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hold local meetings.

1989 - State passes law to allow filling in 13 acres of White Slough wetlands for Highway 37 improvements.

1992 - Highway 37 improved to freeway standards from I-80 to Fairgrounds Drive.

1995-96 - City, county and Bay Conservation and Development Commission approve improvement plans for wetlands area.

2000 - State begins restoring wetlands as condition for Highway 37 improvements.

2002-03 - Highway 37 improvement construction from Napa River Bridge to east of Mini Drive begins.

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