Residents fight back against Willits bypass project

June 21, 2013 7:49:14 PM PDT
The fate of a multimillion-dollar Caltrans project in Mendocino County is in the hands of a federal judge. Friday was the final hearing on the case against the Willits bypass. But while a judge thinks it over, opponents are taking matters into their own hands.

The first phase of the project is more than $200 million. The road will cross sensitive wetlands. The impact will be so significant that Caltrans is required to do $50 million in environmental improvements to compensate. Opponents question if it's worth it.

Protests against the bypass have been going on for years. But video from opponents shows how they've stepped up the last several weeks by successfully slowing and even briefly stopping work on the project.

One demonstrator photo shows the latest move in which a man placed himself and a banner 150-feet up in a piece of heavy equipment that installs drains.

"But the project being constructed right now is a relic from the 1950's," Mendocino County resident Ellen Drell said.

Highway 101 runs right through the town of Willits. South of there, it's a four-lane highway. But when it enters the town it's just main street with five traffic lights.

In the 1990's, Caltrans predicted traffic would increase 60 percent increase over the next 20 years. So they planned a four-lane bypass around Willits.

But, it turns out traffic is actually going down. Caltrans is going through with its plan anyway.

Most locals agree that a bypass around town is a good idea, but many feel this project is way too big. The first phase alone will cost more than $210 million.

Caltrans says traffic and population growth projections justify a four-lane bypass through an environmentally sensitive part of the valley. Opponents say Caltrans' numbers are too high.

"We've gone back, because there's been questions about the necessity of the bypass, and looked at traffic volumes and we've also looked at the safety and the operations through the city of Willits and we believe that the bypass is still a justifiable project," Caltrans Director Malcom Dougherty said.

"We'd like a different bypass," Drell said. "But mainly we'd like an open and honest discussion with Caltrans about the need for the bypass, what the purpose is, and an honest range of solutions for solving what Caltrans perceives as the problem."

Drell and other opponents approached Dougherty after he spoke at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club Friday, and succeeded in getting him to agree to meet with them.

"You can contact my office and I would definitely include District One," Dougherty said.

$136 million is coming from Proposition 1B money. The purpose of that proposition was congestion relief. Opponents are also asking if that money would be better used in say, the Bay Area, rather than on the Willits bypass.


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