Construction begins on controversial Willits bypass

August 8, 2013 8:00:34 PM PDT
Months of protests have slowed down a controversial Caltrans project, but construction has not stopped. A multi-million dollar freeway is being built on sensitive wetlands in an area that just doesn't have many cars. That money could be spent on roads anywhere in California, including the Bay Area. We bring you up to date on what's happening to your transportation dollars.

The Bay Area is now considered the eighth most congested traffic spot in the world. Los Angeles is number three. But Caltrans is planning to spend $300 million in the little town of Willits in Mendocino County where traffic is going down. Construction has already started.

We first told you about this project last May and we went back to take a closer look at what is happening to your transportation dollars and claims that Caltrans is misleading taxpayers.

"A CEO of a corporation would be fired for this kind of horrible, destructive, costly decision making," said Rich Estabrook, a petroleum engineer who lives near Willits. He has joined a coalition of environmental groups fighting the project.

More than 30 protesters have been arrested. The California Highway Patrol now guards the site 24 hours a day, but Caltrans is determined to keep going. Spokesman Phil Frisbie told us, "This has been a top priority of many agencies including the Mendocino Council of Governments for decades."

Willits is 135 miles north of San Francisco on Highway 101 -- the major route north to Eureka.

Frisbie says, "It's considered by many to be the lifeline to the north coast."

That may be true, but by the time Highway 101 goes through Willits, there are only about 8,000 vehicles a day on the road. Caltrans wants to build a four-lane freeway designed to carry roughly 5,000 vehicles an hour. That's $300 million for six miles of freeway, all designed to bypass a bottleneck where 101 turns into Main Street.

Willits City Council member Ron Orenstein says there are often "two lanes of traffic heading north, just gridlocked." He supports Caltrans' plan. There is no question something needs to be done, but others say Caltrans' solution is way too expensive and does too much damage to sensitive wetlands.

City Council member Madge Strong says, "It's too destructive and it only serves a very, very small segment of the traffic."

Critics point to the bottleneck. Caltrans data shows 70 percent of it is locals just driving around town, so most of the cars there won't even use the bypass. To get an idea of who would drive on the bypass, looked at photos from Caltrans' own traffic cameras on Highway 101 north of Willits. Caltrans data shows 60 percent of those vehicles are driving through Willits, so the area is closer to the level of traffic that might be expected on the bypass. Most of the pictures show just a few cars or none at all on the road.

Caltrans told us the pictures don't give a true understanding of traffic. So we went back to see for ourselves. During the late afternoon when the road is generally busiest we saw more cars on the road, but they were all traveling close to the speed limit. During the rest of the day, we saw just a few cars on the road.

We also checked the Caltrans traffic cam repeatedly for about two months. The only really heavy traffic we saw was during music festivals and on holiday weekends. Caltrans admits they don't design roads for holidays.

Ellen Drell of the Willits Environmental Center says the new freeway "will be mainly empty because the number of cars predicted to use this bypass is so small."

So how did a project that seems so out of scale get approved? It started in the mid-1990's when Caltrans predicted traffic in the area would grow by 60 percent over 20 years. It didn't. In fact traffic went down, but the size of the freeway plan has not changed.

Caltrans first claimed, "Only four-lane routes were considered" due to a Federal Highway Administration requirement." They posted it on their website, told us that in an interview and constantly repeated it to critics. But a letter from a federal transportation engineer says that is not true. It says, "level of service is not determinative of the eligibility for federal aid." That means it's up to the state and Caltrans, not the federal government. Caltrans has revised its website, but claims the earlier statement was still true indirectly.

Frisbie said, "It's true in the context that the Federal Highway Administration requires us to meet the purpose and need for a project."

The first phase of construction is starting with just two lanes, predicted to cost $210 million. Tens of millions of those dollars are being spent to prepare the area for four lanes. Frisbie said, "All the permits are for a four-lane project. We purchased the land for a four-lane project. We are doing the mitigation for four lanes."

The final phase is estimated to cost $80 million to $90 million or more, depending on when construction takes place.

Critics are not giving up. Drell said, "The entire project could be shrunk back to a true two-lane road. So it's not too late."

The environmental impact of the bypass is so extensive, Caltrans is required to do $50 million worth of mitigation to compensate. Both sides are still waiting for a judge to rule in a lawsuit over environmental issues.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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