Overcoming skeptics, median brings a decade of safety to once deadly stretch of Highway 37 (third in a series)
Jim Poulos' first memory of Jan. 11, 1993, was his son peeking into his room in the wee hours to say goodbye as he left on a ski trip to Lake Tahoe.
"He said 'I love you,' and 'I'll see you in a week,' " Poulos said.
Those were the last words he heard his son speak.
Hours later, 18-year-old Frankie Poulos died when the truck he was riding in hit ice, and flipped over on a notorious stretch of roadway dubbed "Blood Alley."
Devastated, the father launched a campaign to put a median barrier on the two-lane road to prevent similar crossover accidents.
The elder Poulos would spend two years battling for the highway makeover. The fight involved politicians, environmentalists, Caltrans bureaucrats, law enforcement officials - all struggling to agree on a solution. And it had to be a solution that could get funded.
The process was slow, emotionally charged, groundbreaking and, in the end, a success as officials eventually clotted Blood Alley. A barrier was installed in 1995.
And there hasn't been a single crossover fatality on the roadway since.
Today, getting a multi-million dollar project like the Highway 37 median is no small task. It faces obstacles such as funding, politics and, in
this case, serious doubt that the median would do any good.
Originally built on an old Indian trail, the 11-mile stretch of Highway 37 began as Sears Point Toll Road in 1928.
The state bought it 10 years later, ending the tolls and making it a public road.
By the mid-1950s,
9,000 cars a day traveled on the roadway and talk began about converting the two-lane road into a "superhighway."
By the 1960s, the increased usage began to take its toll as car crashes increase. With no funding, officials looked at turning the highway into a toll road to raise funds to make the roadway safer.
From 1966 to 1970, 27 people died on the stretch of roadway, five times the state average.
By 1971, the state added signs at both ends of State Route 37 stating "Turn on headlights next 10 miles." The "Daylight Test Section" had mixed results.
In 1974, Caltrans added passing lanes to 37 to keep anxious drivers from passing illegally and dangerously.
The addition led state Assemblyman William T. Bagley, R-San Rafael, who traveled the stretch on his drive to the state Capitol and lobbied for the change, to gush that the road was fixed:
"I want to congratulate Caltrans and highly commend the individual responsible for this innovative approach", Bagley said. "Now, with 'Passing Lanes Ahead,' the temptation to pass on the two-lane strip will be gone, traffic will speed up and the death trap will be no more."
A 1982 Caltrans study concluded just the opposite. Most head-ons occur during daylight hours, according to the study, with motorists either not realizing the left lane was for oncoming traffic or trying to pass slower moving vehicles.
Despite the warnings, the roadway remained unchanged over the next decade.
Frankie Poulos just finished his first semester at Santa Rosa Junior College in 1993.
On Jan. 11 that year he and a buddy planned to celebrate with a ski trip up to Lake Tahoe.
At 5:30 a.m., he left with his friend Nick, taking Highway 101 to 37, en route to Interstate 80.
As they drove past the San Pablo Bay wetlands, nearing Vallejo, Nick's white pick-up truck hit a nasty stretch of black ice. The truck, heading eastbound just past the Skaggs Island Road turnout, started spinning and veered into oncoming commuter traffic.
A car slammed into the front passenger side of the truck, where Frankie sat. The truck flipped over and landed upside down in the slough, camouflaged by the pitch dark sky.
Nick came to and found himself upside down in the murky, cold waters. He was able to find a pocket of air near the pickup's floorboard. He scrambled to help Frankie, but it was too late.
Three U.S. Marines, who witnessed the accident on their way to work at Mare Island that morning, stopped to help. All three later told Frankie's father that they slipped and fell as they stepped onto the slick asphalt.
At 10:30 a.m., Jim Poulos received a call from the coroner's office.
"It felt like someone literally took a scoop out of this part of my body," said Poulos, motioning toward his torso. "It was devastating."
A year later, Poulos turned his grieving into action.
"It was something I had to do, to stop what was going on there," Poulos said. "I'm going to get a divider put in or a parallel highway."
Poulos went to Caltrans and asked: "What do I have to do to get this highway divided?"
"They said I was nuts É They said environmentalists will never allow it. It's too sensitive an area É It would get tied up in court for years," Poulos said.
"I said, 'OK, I've got years.' "
Poulos was spurred on when seeing statistics from 1990 to 1996 showing
31 deaths caused by head-on collisions, including his son's.
But, Poulos was up for a difficult fight with Caltrans officials, who were skeptical a median would help. In fact, Caltrans was saying the barrier would make things worse.
Gordon Marts, then Caltrans director of Vallejo's district, said the barrier "would increase accidents on the narrow two-lane highway because drivers would have little or no recovery room and emergency vehicles would have serious problems responding to accidents."
And that was Caltrans' stance at the time. Environmental agencies would never grant the needed permits to expand the roadway.
"I think some people try and oversimplify traffic management and design, and it can't be done," said Steve Cobb, a Caltrans spokesman. "Traffic engineers are cautious and conservative by nature, which is good.
"One fix may cause two to three problems somewhere else."
Another Caltrans source familiar with the project said the issue was complicated. The source asked not to be identified, citing Caltrans policies in dealing with the press.
The main issue at the time, the source said, was precedent. There was none.
"A barrier on a two-lane highway was not in the standards. To get it into our standards takes time. Dealing with the environmentalists takes time," the source said.
"Headquarters decided to do something proactive and put in a barrier even though we'd never done it before. But we'd tried everything else."
The Caltrans official also defended Highway 37 as structurally sound.
"In this location drivers were whacked out, there was nothing wrong with the roadway," the source said. "The roadway itself was fine. If you look up a standard two-lane highway."
Irked by the environmental obstacle comment, Poulos called Will Travis, head of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission.
"I told him about my son and that I want to get the highway divided and Caltrans said environmental groups are the ones making it difficult," Poulos said.
" 'First let me apologize. I should be the one calling you,' were the first words he said."
Travis told Poulos that years earlier BCDC had proposed that Caltrans build a parallel road. The environmental agency had problems with the highway's current layout, which clogged culverts, cut off water flow and destroyed wetlands. BCDC suggested two parallel highways, with water in between to separate traffic, and increase water flow.
Later studies, however, showed that those northern wetlands received their water from the Napa River, not San Pablo Bay, and the project was abandoned.
Regardless, Travis let it be known that his agency wasn't opposed to a median on the highway.
"Don't blame environmental regulations on this issue, we can work through this," said Travis, who still runs the conservation commission. "And widening doesn't necessarily mean destroying the environment."
One well-publicized environmental concern could fit in the palm of your hand - a salt marsh harvest mouse. The endangered rodent is one of the few mammals that can actually drink salt water.
Caltrans recognized the environmental concerns.
Travis, however, said that his discussions with Caltrans hadn't revolved around the environment.
"Caltrans' reaction was they didn't want to put up a barrier because it wouldn't work," Travis said.
Poulos now had a reliable environmental source, but still didn't have any lawmakers on his side.
That changed when then state Sen. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, called Poulos in 1995. Thompson asked him to testify before the Senate Transportation Committee in support of his bill to reduce the Highway 37 speed limit to 55 mph and make the stretch a double fine zone.
When he reached Sacramento, Poulos told Thompson he'd gladly testify, but would lobby for a median as well.Thompson told him Caltrans would balk over the familiar environmental concerns.
Poulos then told him of his conversation with the BCDC chief.
"(Thompson) was livid É He blew up on the Caltrans people," Poulos said.
Thompson, now a congressman, recently recalled the median fight in an interview.
"The Highway Patrol said the best thing to do until there was money was to enhance enforcement," said Thompson, as to why he first tried to lower the speed limit and raise the penalties.
"Caltrans continued to tell us it wasn't a serious area É That given their data it didn't merit changes," Thompson said. "They were playing fast and loose with the numbers and that angered me."
But what really angered Thompson was a leaked internal Caltrans memo that he received from his "Little Deep Throat." The memo, Thompson said, outlined Caltrans' plan to defeat his bill to make Highway 37 a double fine zone.
"The highway was so dangerous they didn't want to send employees out there to change the signage," Thompson said.
"At that point, I told Caltrans we didn't need this bill, we needed a barrier and it's going to be put in," he said.
Caltrans tried for a compromise, with rumble strips and other alternatives to a median, Thompson said."But that was just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic."
A Caltrans official said that initial plan was devised and eventually replaced. The source also said Thompson's double fine legislation eventually passed and Caltrans crews installed the debated signage.
Thompson, who then chaired the budget committee, garnered support for the median from then transportation committee chair Quentin Kopp.
"All of a sudden they found the motivation and money necessary to build the barrier," Thompson said of Caltrans.
Poulos continued his campaign for political backing.
The political pressure brought front page media coverage and editorials calling for barriers.
Poulos began standing in front of post offices and local grocery stores with maps, statistics and petitions for people to sign. Stacks and stacks of petitions began arriving at his house.
Caltrans acknowledged that political pressure can speed up the process, but that it was acting with due diligence. It was also apparently worried about a precedent.
"We didn't want to hurry into it. Once the politicians say to put a barrier in, everybody starts to say put a barrier in," Cobb said.
"As soon as a politician says he or she wants to put up a barrier É that changes everything," he said.
Thompson saw it differently.
"The problem was the highway guys were holding out for a new highway," he said. "They didn't want to do make-shift stuff in between. So, they didn't have the incentive to make improvements on the existing one. They wanted to do a causeway É but there was just no money out there.
"Caltrans is in the business of building highways; they're not in the business of putting in median dividers," he said.
Caltrans, after heated public hearings in Vallejo and Novato in June 1995, finally relented, and agreed to build the barrier.
"It was a mixed feeling," Poulos said. "On the one hand I was excited that the project succeeded, but if I could get Frankie back I would have undone the whole thing and started over. It was an awful, awful basis to have to take on a project."
Once the median was approved, Poulos also aligned with Caltrans.
"This is not putting down Caltrans. Once they saw they could get clearance, they were great," Poulos said. "We started getting on the same side."
However, not everyone was happy once the barriers, which cost about $23 million, were installed.
Many drivers complained to Caltrans after the passing lanes were removed. "We took a fair amount of flak," Cobb said. "But we felt for safety we should do it."
Monument to Frankie
Jim Poulos, now 61 and living in Sausalito, helps his wife run the Frankie Poulos Foundation (www.frankiepoulos.org), which has raised more than $100,000 for children's programs in Marin County. Every year, the couple holds a Christmas tree lighting and concert to raise money and collect teddy bears.
"God bless Jim Poulos. He was driven by the loss of his son," Travis said. "He took on the whole establishment É He made a fundamental change in public policy."
Caltrans, despite its initial concerns, considers Highway 37 a valuable lesson.
"It's a success story, absolutely," Cobb said. "If having a safer stretch of roadway takes people a little longer, we'll take those complaints all day long."
Thompson boiled it down.
"Every accident out there with a death was caused by a crossover," Thompson said. "Now, there cannot be a crossover accident on that roadway."
Poulos, as he stood alongside Highway 37 recently, showed a letter and photo sent to him that reinforced his median crusade. The man wrote that he was driving along Highway 37 when a big rig traveling the opposite direction jack-knifed. The truck, headed directly for his car, was stopped at the last moment by the barrier. He included a photo of the damaged barrier which he said saved his life.
The man thanked Poulos for his hard work getting the barrier installed.
A dozen years after Frankie's death, Poulos surprisingly has no problems driving along Highway 37, despite the bad memories.
"In a way it's kind of peaceful and reassuring," Poulos said. "In a way, the barrier's a monument to Frankie's memory.
"At one point, we wanted to get the road named after him, but we thought why him? There were so many people who were killed out here."
- E-mail Matthias Gafni at email@example.com or call 553-6825.