Possible Soscol Junction Interchange overcrossing
Kelly Doren/Register

A fix for slow-moving traffic at the signalized intersection of Highway 29 and Highway 221 near the Grape Crusher statue – Soscol Junction – could be put on a faster track.

Transportation officials for years have talked about fixing the Soscol Junction bottleneck. They began by seeking a flyover, and more recently have favored the alternative of a Highway 29 overpass with on- and off-ramps regulated by two Highway 221 roundabouts.

But a $35 million-to-$40 million pricetag to create a smoother-flowing, unsignalized junction is the stumbling block. A Soscol Junction solution has long seemed more like the stuff of dreams and planning studies than imminent reality.

That may be changing. The Napa Valley Transportation Authority is moving to make Soscol Junction the first local, signature highway project since the 2014 Highway 12 widening in Jameson Canyon.

“We’d like to deliver the project within the next five years,” NVTA Executive Director Kate Miller said.

Soscol Junction has long been a congestion chokepoint. On a recent Sunday afternoon, southbound traffic at the signals backed up about a mile over the Butler Bridge. On a recent weekday morning, northbound traffic backed up a mile toward Highway 12.

Caltrans is doing the required environmental impact report for a new, improved Soscol Junction. What’s needed is money to build.

One idea is for the NVTA to secure an advance of up to $35 million in state Regional Transportation Improvement Program (RTIP) funds. The NVTA Board of Directors on July 19 endorsed the approach.

Napa County would tie up its future RTIP funding for eight years or so. It would trade a run of smaller projects for the big bang of Soscol Junction.

Miller said the price for Soscol Junction increases every year — that is common for construction projects because of rising costs. She said Napa County could never pay for a project of this size by banking its RTIP money.

Even if the NVTA succeeds in receiving a $35 million advance in RTIP money, it might not have to use this entire amount on Soscol Junction. Miller raised the possibility of securing other funds.

One possible source is an increase in regional bridge tolls, should Bay Area voters approve such a hike, possibly in 2018. Another is grants that will be available because of the state gas tax increase.

In addition, an NVTA report showed $5 million in developer traffic mitigation fees coming from the Meritage, the Meritage expansion, Stanly ranch, Napa Pipe and Napa Junction Park projects.

Caltrans created the Highway 29 and Highway 221 intersection in 1981 when it opened the Butler Bridge and rerouted Highway 29 south of the city of Napa. Highway 29 had previously run through Napa along Imola Avenue.

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The original Caltrans plan called for a Highway 29/221 interchange with on and off ramps. To the disappointment of county officials, Caltrans pleaded poverty and settled on the less expensive solution of installing traffic signals.

By 2000, local transportation officials talked of building a flyover. The NVTA endorsed the idea in 2002, giving Caltrans the green light to begin environmental design and preliminary review.

Local transportation officials told the Napa Valley Register at the time that the new Soscol Junction could be built by 2009 or 2010. Instead, the Highway 12 widening in Jameson Canyon leapfrogged Soscol Junction in the planned order of highway improvements.

Caltrans released a draft environmental impact report for Soscol Junction in March 2015. This study found that rush-hour morning drivers experience delays of about a minute and evening drivers experience delays of about a two-and-a-half minutes.

If the intersection remains as it is today, rush hour drivers in both morning and evening will experience delays of about seven minutes by 2039, the document predicted.

But the flyover idea proved controversial. Some critics don’t want a towering traffic structure for a Napa Valley gateway. Others dislike having the connection broken between Highway 221 and Soscol Ferry Road. Still others say bicyclists would have difficulty using a flyover.

As a result, local transportation leaders decided to explore the alternative of creating a Highway 29 overpass with Highway 221 passing underneath. Highway 221 would have two roundabouts to regulate through traffic and traffic turning onto and off of Highway 29.

Miller said an updated environmental impact report should be released for public comment within six months.

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Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He was worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield. He is a graduate of UC Sa