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Road and Rail Transportation in the Delta

July 2014

Transportation plays a critical role in the Delta’s economic and social well-being. The road and rail network that crisscrosses the Delta serves local needs, provides access to regional urban markets, and, in turn, links the Delta’s economy to national and global markets.

“Transportation has a lot of similarities to water in that the essential element is flow,” said Council Program Manager Jessica Davenport during the June Council meeting. “If there’s not enough flow, the local economy suffers from a lack of connection between urban and rural areas. If there’s too much flow, there are traffic jams that prevent farmers from getting their crops to market and hold up the progress of commuters and freight.”

Water and transportation systems both have aging infrastructure and they’re both threatened by levee instability and sea level rise, she added. As the Delta Plan points out, the road and rail network is vulnerable to not only sea-level rise, but also flooding and seismic activity.

One of the Delta Plan’s core strategies for protecting and enhancing the Delta is to “sustain a vital Delta economy, that includes a mix of agriculture, tourism, recreation, commercial and other industries, and vital components of state and regional infrastructure,” including the transportation system.

Three recommendations in the Delta Plan relate to transportation:

1. Designate State Route 160 as a National Scenic Byway - Recommends that Caltrans seek designation of SR 160 as a National Scenic Byway to protect and enhance the unique cultural, recreational, natural resources, and agricultural values.
2. Provide adequate infrastructure - Recommends that Caltrans and local agencies plan the transportation infrastructure—such as roads and highways—to meet the needs of development consistent with sustainable community strategies, local plans, the Delta Protection Commission’s land use and resource management plan and the Delta Plan.
3. Plan for State Highways - Recommends that the Council as part of the prioritization of state levee investments consult with Caltrans and consider the effects of flood hazards and sea level rise on state highways in the Delta.

State Route (SR) 160 is a 50-mile long, mainly two-lane highway that begins in the southern city limits of Sacramento, runs parallel to the Sacramento River in the Delta and ends in eastern Antioch at SR 4.

“With SR 160 as a national scenic byway, there would be opportunities to improve signage and interpretation as well as amenities for recreational access,” Davenport said.

Flood risks are increasing as land in the Delta continues to subside and precipitation patterns change. More precipitation falling as rain rather than snow and earlier snowmelt are expected to lead to higher peak flows. Sea level rise and extreme weather events will likely contribute to the following impacts to transportation infrastructure:

• Roadway washout
• Bridge scours
• Railway flooding
• Damage to roadway substructure
• Route closure
• Travel delays
• Increased need for emergency response services

During the meeting the Council heard from experts representing local, regional and state points of view on road and rail transportation in the Delta.

Garth Hopkins, Chief of the Office of Regional Planning of Transportation at Caltrans explained that the state highway system in the Delta is managed by three Caltrans districts and multiple local agencies. Three interstate freeways and state highways ring the Delta region, while the primary state routes that cross the Delta are SR 4, SR 12, and SR 160. Those routes are primarily two-lane roads designed for low-traffic volumes or flows.

“With half a million residents in the Delta, the transportation system provides a vital role in getting goods and people to where they want to go,” Hopkins said, noting that there are 50 bridges in the Delta, and 30 are drawbridges, which adds to the complexity of maintenance and operation in the system.

He added that 17 centerline miles in the Delta may be impacted by sea level rise in Solano, Sacramento and San Joaquin counties.

On July 1, 2014, Caltrans started a three-year effort to conduct a statewide vulnerability assessment of the state highway system to climate change impacts: sea level rise, increased temperatures and extreme weather events.

“We’ll have a good idea of where we’ve had problem events due to flooding, washouts, etc. in the past,” Hopkins said. “When we’ve had extreme storms in the past, that’s going to be more indication of what’s going to be happening in the future from what climate change scientists say with more frequency.”

Responding to a question from Council Member Patrick Johnston regarding how Caltrans is approaching adaptation to climate change, Hopkins said an example is the planning process for State Route 37 at the northern edge of San Francisco Bay.

One option is “to put it on a bridge structure, a viaduct, to raise it above the sea level,” Hopkins said. “To move it out of land and into the Bay—just have a viaduct along the Bay.” He said that Route 37 could be used as a case study for all vulnerable routes in the Delta.

Martin Engelmann, Deputy Executive Director of Planning for the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, said that a major project they’re working on now is the TriLink Study on SR-239, a legislatively approved, but unconstructed route in the state highway system on the western fringe of the Delta secondary zone. Funded by a $15 million federal grant, the study is exploring options for creating a new connection from Brentwood to the I-580/I-205 corridor in Tracy.

Preliminary findings show that TriLink would support local job growth, enhance goods movement, improve roadway safety, and dramatically increase speeds and save times on trips going from Tracy into the northern parts of Contra Costa. It would also improve emergency access, serving as an emergency evacuation route in the event of a natural disaster.

Council member Judge Damrell asked if this new route would connect from I-580 to I-680.

“It would connect from 580, go straight north of the 205/580 junction and it would connect to Hwy 4 East; and then Hwy 4 east which is now being improved to eight lanes eventually connects to 680, so you could use it to get to Martinez,” Engelmann said. He confirmed that Hwy 4 would be the connector between SR-239 and 680.

“And what is the status of this project?” Damrell asked.

“It’s still in the planning stages,” Engelmann said. “We’ve just conducted a feasibility study, will do a Project Study Report Caltrans-style during 2014, in 2015 we’re going to start the CEQA/NEPA process. Probably construction is at least 10 years out on this project.”

Damrell asked about the funding sources for the project.

“The sources for the study are federal; this is a [former U.S. congressional representative Richard] Pombo grant,” Engelmann said. “There is no funding now for the billion-dollar project. SR-239 is a legislatively designated route, but it hasn’t been adopted by CTC (California Transportation Commission) yet.”

“But all three counties are self-help counties, so you could stick your fist into each one of their wallets to do that,” said Council Member Larry Ruhstaller.

“That is correct and we’re also looking at innovative funding methods and the possibility of creating a joint powers authority and the possibility of tolling,” Engelmann said.

Michael Selling, the deputy director of engineering services for the San Joaquin County Public Works Department, discussed current and future challenges to the operations and maintenance of the county’s roadways.

San Joaquin County has more than 1600 miles of roads and 268 bridges. More than half of the bridges are 40-50 years old; they were designed to last for 50 years.

Most of the local roads are farm-to-market roads that are vital for the agricultural economy in San Joaquin County. The peat soils, combined with a high water table, tend to shrink and swell, which adds undulations to the roads.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we don’t have a lot of resources to do it, so that makes it tough,” Selling said.

While resources are failing to keep with maintenance needs, regulation is increasing. “More and more, every transportation dollar is going into process rather than out onto construction on the roads and bridges,” Selling said. “With birds, fish, and other wildlife in the Delta, not to mention the various resource agencies that have jurisdiction, it’s pretty difficult to obtain all the environmental clearances that we need to when we work on our roads.”

Sam Shelton an associate planner for the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) briefed the Council on the Rural Urban Connection Strategy (RUCS).

RUCS considers the region’s growth and sustainability objectives from a rural perspective as well as being an economic and environmental sustainability strategy for rural areas.

One of the RUCS objectives is to determine rural transportation and other infrastructure needs. Some of the tools RUCS uses are modeling efforts that portray how the rural economy can change, and what that means for land use and transportation.

One model projects the impact of changing crop patterns. For instance, the model can show the impact of switching from growing alfalfa to orchard crops on 2000 acres of alfalfa in Yolo County. The result would be $2 million more ag value, a return of $500,000 on investment, less water use (less than 500 acre feet) a little more labor (10 workers) but reduced truck trips (-47).

The Council will use the information presented to consider how best to integrate transportation issues into its ongoing levee investment prioritization study, provide additional consultation to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan agencies on mitigation of transportation impacts, and promote better coordination of the many transportation planning efforts in the Delta, including Caltrans’ climate change vulnerability assessments.

Coequal goals

The Delta Stewardship Council was created in legislation to achieve the state mandated coequal goals for the Delta. "'Coequal goals' means the two goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem. The coequal goals shall be achieved in a manner that protects and enhances the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource, and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place." (CA Water Code §85054)