A new vision for rebuilding flood-prone, traffic-choked Highway 37 calls for also turning the surrounding wetlands of the Napa-Sonoma marshes into a Bay Area outdoor nature attraction as famous as Muir Woods.
The group Common Ground says this 46-square-mile area has no real identity, despite having state and federal preserves. The team of architects, landscape architects, urban designers, economists, ecologists and others wants the public talking about “The Grand Bayway.”
“It could be a central park in our 21st way of thinking about it,” said Tom Leader of Common Ground.
Concept paintings show people walking and biking on boardwalks amid wetlands and sloughs as pelicans and other birds fly nearby. An existing, low-key trailhead at the end of Buchli Station Road in Napa County’s Carneros area is depicted as a bustling place with an excursion train dropping off hikers.
Highway 37 would be The Grand Bayway front door, but not the Highway 37 of today. The new road might be on a 20-foot-high causeway that snakes gracefully through the wetlands, something that Leader said could be a signature feature like the Golden Gate Bridge or Bay Bridge.
One of the grander ideas is to have an elevated walkway crossing above the elevated Highway 37, perhaps some 30 feet in the air, allowing for a hike or bike ride with sweeping Bay Area views.
Common Ground and its The Grand Bayway proposal was one of nine projects recently unveiled by the Resilient By Design Bay Area Challenge funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.
But Common Ground wants its ideas to be more than a dream. On Friday, Leader made a presentation at a Highway 37 committee meeting attended by officials from Napa, Sonoma, Solano and Marin counties, Caltrans and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
The committee is charged with finding a solution to Highway 37 traffic and sea level rise challenges. It is also faced with the cold, hard reality of finding money to build a project and keep a key 21-mile traffic link between Interstate 80 and Highway 101 operating in coming decades.
Committee members gave a polite reception to the Common Ground presentation.
“It’s always fun to plan when you have no fiscal constraints,” Napa Valley Transportation Authority Executive Director Kate Miller said after the meeting.
This type of perspective can foster creativity, Miller said. Elements of The Grand Bayway vision could end up in the eventual Highway 37 project, she added.
Napa County Supervisor Belia Ramos also saw value in looking for solutions without thinking of fiscal barriers.
“Is this a reality for us? Probably not. But it doesn’t mean it can’t be part of the discussion,” Ramos said.
Barbara Salzman of Marin Audubon Society expressed concern about all of the boardwalks, trails and trains stops envisioned for the wetlands. She wants people to enjoy the wetlands and marshes, but increasing usage will impact the migratory and rare species that people want to see, she said.
“A word of caution,” she said.
The Highway 37 committee also heard updates from Caltrans on efforts to come up with a Highway 37 solution, be it rebuilding the stretches of the road on a causeway or embankment or a combination of the two, or even finding a different alignment. Environmental study work could begin early next year.
But that effort to date has been underway independent of The Grand Bayways ideas.