Assignment 7

Caltrans to spend $210M on Willits bypass

Thursday, May 09, 2013

If you live in the Bay Area, you know bad traffic can be. There are thousands of cars backed up in the same spots day after day. Many of those communities could make good use of $200 million of taxpayer money to improve their highways. Instead, that money is going north to a little town where traffic is actually going down.

There have been angry protests, tree sitters, and senior citizens begging to be arrested over this issue. It is happening in the normally quiet town of Willits where residents are at odds over a massive highway bypass that will cost at least $210 million.

"It's insane to put this much money into a project that isn't necessary," said one protester.

Willits is 135 miles north of San Francisco on Highway 101. It is the major route through Mendocino County and north to Eureka. Just south of Willits, Highway 101 is a four-lane freeway, but when it comes into town 101 turns into Main Street with five traffic lights. So Caltrans wants to build a freeway to bypass Willits.

"To improve inter-regional traffic along 101. 101 is a very important corridor for commerce and for just people going on vacation," said Phil Frisbie, a Caltrans spokesman.

After two decades of planning, Caltrans is starting to cut trees and put up fences around the construction area. The plan calls a four-lane freeway six-miles long. Only two lanes will be built in the first phase, but crews will clear a roadbed wide enough for four lanes. Environmentalists are suing saying a much smaller project could do the job with less damage.

"It's going to involve cutting down 100 -year-old oak trees, filling in acres and acres of wetlands, endangering threatened salmon and steelhead," said Aruna Prabhala, an environmental attorney.

The impact will be so significant Caltrans is required to do $50 million worth of environmental improvements to compensate. An online video shows their plan and Caltrans is standing by it. The case goes to trial next month.

In the meantime, critics are asking a more basic question: does Willits even need a bypass? Caltrans says yes and they've already got most of the money for the first phase.

"The actual construction costs, about $136 million, are funded by California voter approved Proposition 1-B which is designed for congestion relief," said Frisbie.

That bond money is going to Willits, but it could go to any congested traffic area around the state. It will be paid back with your tax dollars, including interest. So what will you actually be getting for your money?

The major problem area is the south end of Willits where traffic often backs up. Thirteen years ago Caltrans projected traffic would increase, but their own figures show traffic has actually gone down. Even so, Frisbie told us via Skype they still need a four lane freeway.

"To make sure we weren't building a project that was going to be basically obsolete in 20 years," said Frisbie.

We asked to see the new growth numbers that justify their findings, but Caltrans could not produce them. They do have documents that show about 70-percent of the traffic at the south end of town is local. That means most of the cars stuck in traffic there would not even use the bypass.

To get an idea of who would drive on the bypass, we took a look at photos from Caltrans' traffic cameras on 101 north of town. Caltrans data shows most of the vehicles on that part of 101 are driving through Willits, so the level of traffic there is closer to the level of traffic that might be expected on the bypass. The photos are taken once an hour. We recorded them for a week. Many showed no cars at all, or just one or two vehicles. But Caltrans says it's hard to get a true understanding of traffic with still pictures.

"Especially on a two-lane facility because traffic tends to get bunched up behind slow moving vehicles," said Frisbie.

Actually. we did see that, once. Many locals told us these photos are a good indicator of traffic most days.

"We're paving paradise and putting up an empty concrete freeway," said Willits City Councilmember Madge Strong.

Plenty of people in Willits do want the bypass, including City Councilmember Bruce Burton, owner of a local saw mill.

"It's not the perfect project, but it will be a big improvement to the safety of downtown," said Burton.

But opponents don't plan to give up.

"You have a lot of congestion in the Bay Area that you could probably use the money from this bypass to fix," said Willits resident Naomi Wagner.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.

(Copyright ©2014 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.)

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caltrans, highway 101, mendocino county, traffic, assignment 7
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