Army Corps threatens to suspend Caltrans Willits bypass project

The Army Corps of Engineers is threatening to suspend or revoke the Caltrans construction permit for the Willits bypass.
September 23, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
A controversial North Coast freeway project has hit a major snag. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is threatening to suspend or even revoke Caltrans' permit. The freeway is being built on Highway 101 in Mendocino County to bypass the town of Willits.

ABC7 News has been investigating this project since May and now it appears Caltrans may be coming up short when it comes to protecting the environment.

For the past nine months, Caltrans crews have been working to turn federally protected wetlands into the first phase of a four-lane freeway project. It is six miles long, with an estimated cost of $300 million, but that's only if it's ever finished.

Laurie Monarres of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told ABC7 News, "At this point they are not in compliance with their permit conditions." That permit from Corps is supposed to protect the environment and Caltrans needs it to keep building. Monarres said, "We are trying to give them every opportunity before suspending the permit, but it's approaching that now."

Caltrans is filling in at least 60 acres of wetlands considered critical to the ecosystem. The project also causes serious impact to streams, hundred year old trees, endangered plants and fish. The impact is so severe, Caltrans is required to compensate by restoring or improving 2,000 acres of nearby wetlands and creeks, damaged by past human activities. But while there is solid progress on the freeway construction, Caltrans has missed deadline after deadline on the environmental plan.

Ellen Drell with the Willits Environmental Center told us Caltrans "[bullies], they delay, they drag their feet. They basically don't do what the agencies are asking them to do. "

Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie disputed that. He said Caltrans is "going to follow any requirements by our permitting agencies." He showed us stream beds where Caltrans is working to improve fish habitat, but it is just a tiny fraction of what's required. Frisbie said it is a very complex project.

It is also expensive. Caltrans spent $16 million to buy land for the environmental improvements and now they need a contractor to do the work. They just took bids estimating it would cost another $13 million, but they were way off. The lowest bid came in at $39 million. That's $26 million more than expected. Caltrans doesn't have the money so now they're taking another look at the bids.

Frisbie told ABC7 News, "Maybe there's a misunderstanding on our specifications or maybe our specifications need to be tweaked a little bit."

But $26 million is a lot of tweaking, especially when Caltrans is also facing problems with another part of its environmental plan. Back in September, two state environmental agencies sent Caltrans 40 pages of questions and concerns and they are still waiting for a response.

All this is happening against a backdrop of constant protests and a divided community. Highway 101 is the major route north from San Francisco to Eureka, considered an economic lifeline by many. Traffic on 101 often backs up in Willits so the new freeway will go around the town.

The Mendocino Council of Governments supports the project. Executive Director Phil Dow said this bypass is "for the benefit of goods movement and the traveling public and those people in the Bay Area who come up here on their weekends or vacations."

But over the past 20 years, traffic in the area has been flat or down. Environmental groups are asking the governor to intervene and scale back to a two-lane freeway. Madge Strong, a Willits City Council Member said scaling back would "save money, not only save wetlands, save money."

However, Caltrans says it's too late to go back. Frisbie said most of the impacts for the full four-lane freeway have already occurred. The northern interchange where a lot of the wetlands are being filled in looks barren now. Laurie Monarres with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it still might be possible to bring back some of the wetlands. She said, "We'd need to go out and do an actual site specific evaluation on the wetlands to determine that, but there is a decent chance of success."

One of the governor's aids met with environmentalists about the project a few weeks ago, but that was before Caltrans came up $26 million short of funding for the environmental plan. The governor's office did not return our call asking whether he will consider intervening.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.


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