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San Rafael I-580 connector proposal heads to environmental review

October 26, 2023

By Adrian Rodriguez| Marin IJ

Marin transportation officials are gearing up to launch a two-year environmental review of the proposed connector between Highway 101 and Interstate 580 in San Rafael.

The Transportation Authority of Marin board passed a resolution last month authorizing a cooperative agreement with Caltrans to begin the process. The Transportation Authority of Marin is leading the project, while Caltrans is serving as the reviewing agency.

The project, which has an estimated cost of $192 million to $315 million, would create a new freeway connector allowing northbound Highway 101 drivers to merge directly onto eastbound Interstate 580. The proposed alternatives would position the new connector south of Bellam Boulevard in east San Rafael.

As it stands, northbound Highway 101 drivers must use Bellam Boulevard and local streets in San Rafael or Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Larkspur to get to Interstate 580 and onto the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

“You have this mixing of regional and local traffic,” said Dan Cherrier, project manager at the Transportation Authority of Marin. “One of the ideas was to do everything we could to keep that traffic going to bridge off the local streets.”

If there is no project, traffic patterns on northbound Highway 101 are expected to get worse, increasing the travel time between the Tamalpais Drive interchange and the Bellam Boulevard exit from 13 minutes to 25 minutes by 2040, according to TAM.

The proposed connector would be two lanes, with the possible addition of a third lane for a high-occupancy vehicle bypass. The project would also create an auxiliary lane on Interstate 580. Four project alternatives are being considered.

Alternative 2 proposes a flyover between Cal Park Hill and the Bellam Boulevard exit that crosses Andersen Drive and follows Simms Street to merge onto Interstate 580. That option costs $241 million.

Alternative 3A is the least expensive option at $192 million. It proposes a connector near Bellam Boulevard that crosses over the existing northbound Highway 101 and eastbound Interstate 580 offramp.

Alternative “3B modified” would cost $200 million. It would create a new exit lane from Highway 101 in a similar location as 3A that connects directly with Interstate 580. A new eastbound I-580 offramp would need to be constructed.

Alternative 6 proposes a flyover that begins in the same area as Alternative 2 but farther south, crossing Jacoby Street, Andersen Drive and the Golden Gate Transit bus yard before merging onto Interstate 580. That option is $315 million.

Transportation officials are also proposing a host of road improvements on and around Bellam Boulevard. Proposals include replacing the eastbound Interstate 580 bridge over Bellam Boulevard. There are discussions of making improvements to sidewalks and crosswalks and creating buffered bicycle lanes on Bellam Boulevard between Anderson Drive and Kerner Boulevard.

The streets improvements will add about $20,000 to $30,000 to whichever connector project is selected, Cherrier said.

Officials have secured $135 million in Regional Measure 3 funding and $16.5 million in Measure AA funding for the project. Cherrier said officials will need to do some work to close the funding gap.

After presentations over the past two years, the San Rafael City Council has indicated that alternatives 2 and 6 are the preferred options. Councilmembers also expressed concern about the traffic implications on the Canal neighborhood.

San Rafael Mayor Kate Colin, who serves on the TAM board, said the city “is grateful to Caltrans and TAM for recognizing the importance of improving this highway interchange.”

“I remain optimistic that any changes will also prioritize minimizing congestion on our local streets,” Colin said. “This project will take years before any construction work begins and we are committed to continuing to work with the transit agencies and stakeholders during that time.”

Warren Wells, policy and planning director for the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, is part of a stakeholder working group that has been participating in meetings hosted by TAM. He said the coalition is excited about the prospect of bicycle and pedestrian safety improvements.

“While the interchange project will not be complete until the mid-2030s, improvements on Bellam are needed urgently and should be installed much sooner than that in order to improve connectivity and safety in the Canal,” Wells said.

Jim Draper, a member of the Federation of San Rafael Neighborhoods who participated in the same stakeholder sessions, said that is a common theme heard across all groups.

“I don’t really see why the improvements on the local streets need to be tied to the construction of the connector,” Draper said.

Cherrier said transportation planners are looking at options to do the project in phases, which could enable the local street improvements to be done sooner.

Omar Carrera, chief executive officer of Canal Alliance, said he joined the stakeholder group because freeway infrastructure projects have negatively impacted low-income communities, and he wanted to ensure that doesn’t happen to the Canal.

“Right now they are talking about improving bicycle infrastructure, and for us, we welcome that,” Carrera said. “But it can’t be seen as the only benefit for the community. There is a need for child care centers, community centers, laborer and work support service centers.”

TAM officials said there is a targeted outreach campaign to inform residents of the Canal and Woodland neighborhoods about the process and how they can get involved.

Carrera said he is seeking funding to amplify the community outreach effort, hoping to motivate residents to have their voices heard.

“We want to make sure the community actually benefits from the project,” Carrera said. “It’s up to the community to define what is important, it’s not up to me, and that’s why we want the community to engage.”

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