The Battle for the Little Lake Valley: Debating the Willits Bypass, Pros and Cons (Part II of III)

The Willits Freeway and other future projects were discussed at a public meeting held February 1957 in Eureka. (Photo and caption provided courtesy of Caltrans)

This is part two of Lost Coast Outpost’s three-part series on the Willits Bypass. While every effort was made to ensure this story is unbiased (both sides had the opportunity to rebut the other side) it should be noted that reporter Kym Kemp’s father and grandfather worked for Caltrans and she is married to a Caltrans Project Manager.

Today’s focus will be on the reasons against putting in the bypass. Phil Frisbie, a Caltrans’ spokesperson, will rebut.

Link to Day 1

Against: Point 1. The bypass costs too much money.

David Drell worries about scarce resources being used on the bypass when other, more important projects are unfunded. He calls the project a “colossal waste.”

His wife, Ellen Drell, agrees: “One of the things that is causing the state to be in financial trouble is a transportation department that is out of control.” She alleges, “There is a 300 billion dollar backlog of maintenance projects.” The money spent on the bypass, she believes, would be better spent on fixing those issues rather than building this one project.

Furthermore, she argues, “This project is being paid for by bond money. That means it is going to cost many times more than the original price tag because you always have to pay back with interest.”

Phil Frisbie, Jr., Caltrans spokesperson, responds by saying that while “$210 million is the total cost to develop the project and mitigation,” it would cost less than that if funding for phase 2 were available right now. He adds that the longer it takes for the project to be funded, “the higher [the cost ] is likely to be be due toinflation.”

Against: Point 2. The bypass causes too much environmental destruction.

Environmentalists point out that wetlands are the kidneys of the planet. Wetlands not only filter water but they absorb excess water and reduce flooding. The concern is that tampering with these wetlands could lead to unknown and drastic consequences. According to theSave Little Lake Valley Blog

The project entails the largest wetland fill in northern California in over 50 years. It will install 55,000 “wick drains” to dewater and compact fill areas, with unknown impacts on valley hydrology,

Furthermore, Gary Hughes of EPIC says that threatened fish species will be damaged if this project continues. “Caltrans has applied for an incidental take permit for Coho, which is a permit to harass, harm, kill and otherwise negatively affect the listed threatened species,” he argues. “This project is not harmless to endangered salmon — to the contrary, by pursuing the take permit, the agency has admitted to planning to cause harm, including mortality, to endangered salmon species.”

Finally, there are two specific plant species of concern in the area of the bypass. North Coast semaphore grass, which is on California’s list of threatened plants, is found in the bypass footprint as is Bakers meadowfoam, which is listed as rare.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wNZHXTfKuS0] Caltrans put out a video describing their mitigation efforts

Caltrans Senior Resource Biologist Chris Collison argues that Caltrans is actually doing little real damage and actually improving some conditions. He says that the land being used for the Willits Bypass is not “pristine nature.” These acres, he says, were “primarily used to grow hay […]. I’m not saying they are not valuable, [but] they are not in their pristine state.” In fact, he says, historically, these acres were under Little Lake much of the year. Decades ago, much of the land was drained. “It’s got man’s fingerprints on it,” he says, and adds that Caltrans is going to return the land around the road towards a more natural state. “We’re going to tilt the scene towards the more native species. However, he acknowledges, “There is still going to be agriculture.”

Collison says that far from harming fish, the agency spent large amounts of time designing a roadway that avoids the water in the bypass area. “Caltrans worked hard to avoid salmonid-bearing streams,” he says. “Out of 50 piers on the viaduct only one pier will be in a salmonid stream.” And, he says, “There will be work only during low flow conditions [from] June 15th to Oct 15th.” But he does acknowledge there may be some impact on salmonid species during construction.

Artist’s conception of the viaduct provided courtesy of Caltrans.

Caption: Caltrans says, “A surface-level highway through the floodplain would have impacted many acres of wetlands and affected the drainage of the floodplain. The wetlands under the viaduct will only be temporarily impacted during construction. And because the viaduct is located just to the east of a natural row of trees, it will be shielded from the view of most Willits residents.”

However, he says the project includes streambed restoration that will help the fish. For instance, he says that one part of the project involves Caltrans replacing a culvert that had a drop too far for fish to be able to access the streambeds beyond it. Collison says this fix will open up miles of streams that fish haven’t been able to reach in years.

Hughes of EPIC counters: “Since when was it necessary to build a four-lane freeway to do fish habitat enhancement work? …The fish habitat work could and should be done without even having to build a major highway through those spots.”

Collison also claims that Caltrans did extensive studies to avoid North Coast semaphore grass. He says that out of five known areas containing the plant in the bypass footprint, only one third of an acre will be impacted. “To offset impact, we worked on ways to help the species survive,” he explains. He says that Caltrans purchased eight acres of habitat for the grass, “which is a 25 to 1 mitigation … For the last 2 years, teams of people have been digging up the rhizomes and putting them into the three-acre reserve … There have been 5,000 plants transplanted … Forever, now, no one can use herbicide on that area …We now control how to use those lands for the health and well-being of that species.”

“Before we bought the land, people didn’t even know [the grasses] were there,” he says. The plant now is receiving protection that it didn’t before.

However, Hughes argues that the protection of the plant isn’t the only reason to be concerned with the way Caltrans is handling the process. A major concern, he explains, is that Caltrans isn’t allowing the public adequate chance to weigh in on the situation. He says, “The semaphore was discovered after the project was finalized and should have been sufficient in terms of new information to reopen the project to public review. …The significant new information of finding rare species on the project site should require by law further environmental review and another round of public comment. It is simple civics; we have a legally protected right to participate in these major decisions, that is the essence of our democracy.”

Against: Point 3. The bypass doesn’t need to be so big. There are two-lane alternatives.

David Drell, a co-founder of the Willits Environmental Center, calls the bypass “another monument to stupidity and waste.” He points out that Hwy 101 rarely has more than a few cars at a time heading south into Willits, and yet the bypass is intended to be a “four-lane freeway the size of I-5.”

Ellen Drell points out that the amount of traffic through Willits has basically not increased in 20 years. She says that the bypass will be massively overbuilt. “This four-lane freeway that they’re designing … is, like the freeway at Leggett, a waste,’’ she alleges. A two-lane road, she says, would be “adequate to handle the traffic.

Phil Frisbie, Caltrans spokesperson, disagrees. “The traffic volume was enough to justify the project over 20 years ago, and it still does,” he says. Caltrans believes the project is necessary to reduce the impact on through traffic. According to the Willits Bypass Traffic Report, (see bottom of page seven.), “by 2028, travel time through the project area is expected to be over 30 minutes.” By contrast, the bypass should allow traffic through the area in less than 10 minutes. Frisbie says that the Federal Highway Administration says that all projects must be built to maintain a certain level of service for 20 years. A two-lane bypass, he says, has been calculated multiple times to fall short of that.

Gary Hughes of EPIC disagrees, Caltrans never “analyzed alternatives to the four-lane highway,” he says. “It is part of their public relations to say things like ‘we looked at 30 alternatives,’ but that is just smoke and mirrors… .”

Alternative routes have been suggested. Ellen Drell said, Caltrans could connect two roads south and north that will allow locals to go around but keep through traffic in downtown Willits.” Or, she offers, “Traffic could be slowed. Main Street could have design features like roundabouts, landscaping and crosswalks.” Another option, she suggests, would be to “…take advantage of the railroad corridor. It goes right where they want to go.”

Caltrans’ Phil Frisbie says that the agency’s calculations, most recently in February 2012, show that a four-lane road is required to meet the needs of the state, and “we reviewed over 30 alternatives” but this route is the one that works best. ( Caltrans addresses some alternatives here.)

Against: Point 4. The bypass doesn’t solve the main problems for local residents.

Opponents of the bypass believe that it won’t solve the main concerns of local residents. “Most of the traffic that gets backed up is 70 percent local,” says Ellen Drell. She believes that a route that only addresses through traffic, such as the currently designed bypass, will not relieve most of the congestion in Willits. She argues that most of the traffic backs up at the intersection of Highways 101 and 20 in downtown Willits, and that the bypass does not address that problem.

Phil Frisbie points out that Caltrans’ main focus is get through traffic moving. “The goal is to help interregional traffic,” he says. “The fact that 20 still runs through town is part of a compromise worked out years ago with the city and businesses which are located south of Route 20.”

Willits traffic, he adds, is a local issue. “Caltrans has worked, and will continue to work with the city to help them develop solutions to local traffic issues, and then help them find funding to implement those solutions,” he says.

A Caltrans’ blog, Willits Bypass Project News, states that

A separate Route 20 interchange was considered but ultimately rejected from the project due to additional wetland impacts, lack of support from local businesses on Route 101 south of Route 20, and impacts to local residents from the required extension of Route 20 to the bypass. This could still be considered in the future if there is enough local support and funding through the Mendocino Council of Governments.

Against: Point 5. The bypass will ruin Willits’ economy.

“Many Willits merchants are not happy to have the customer base of tourists and regional residents encouraged to drive all the way around the town and to miss the downtown area,” explains Gary Hughes of EPIC. According to both he and the Drells, many merchants and businesses in Willits are unhappy with the bypass.

Furthermore, the Anderson Valley Advertiser (AVA) claims, “more than a hundred Willits businesses signed a petition opposing the bypass.” Furthermore, the AVA piece argues that once the bypass goes through,

Caltrans is abandoning Willits’ “Main Street” (Highway 101) and leaving its maintenance to the struggling City of Willits. Since a lot of the traffic will still go through Willits…, Willits will be stuck with a maintenance load and cost that is way beyond its means.

A Caltrans Bypass study on the effects of bypasses in general (though not on Willits in particular) says,

  • Bypasses often have a short-term (and negative) impact on the local economy, but retail sales often improve in the longer term. However, some communities may never fully recover.

  • The construction of a bypass may also provide an opportunity for revitalization of the local community.

  • Bypasses are often promoted as improving pedestrian safety along Main Street. Since traffic accidents involving pedestrians are relatively rare events, Caltrans collision statistics may not reflect improved safety. However, bypasses may improve the perception of safety, which is a benefit in its own right.

Frisbie says that many Willits merchants are quite happy to have the through traffic removed. “We have many advocates,” he says. “Because Hwy 101 goes through the old section,” he points out, “all merchants must follow state highway regulations for signage or other traffic measures.” This, he says, is an irritant for the business owners who want to have more control over their own community. “With the bypass,” he says, “this will change. Historic downtown will regain more options.”

Further arguments opponents make against the bypass can be found here.

Tomorrow, this three-part series will continue with the points in favor of the bypass, responded to by Gary Hughes of EPIC. (See Part III here.)

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