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By Press Democrat staff writer Glenda Anderson:

Caltrans officials said Monday they will halt nearly all work on the Willits bypass while they try to get their permit for working in wetlands reinstated.

The cost of keeping contract construction workers and equipment on standby while they hammer out a permit solution has cost an estimated $800,000 since June 20 and is increasing by nearly $100,000 a day, said Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie.

“We had to finally say this is enough,” he said. About 100 construction workers are expected to be laid off from the project.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended Caltrans’ permit to work in wetlands and streams last month because it had failed to keep to its agreed-upon schedule for mitigating the loss of wetlands caused by the project.

The first phase of the bypass project is expected to permanently affect 40 acres of wetlands and temporarily affect 30 acres, according to Caltrans officials. Another 30 acres would be affected by the second phase, which would expand the bypass from two to four lanes.

Caltrans is required to create additional wetlands and make other land and stream improvements to compensate for the damage. It has purchased about 2,000 acres in the Little Lake Valley to that end, officials said.

But Caltrans said higher-than-expected costs have slowed progress on the mitigation work, leading to the suspended permit.

“Most of the wetlands in the project footprint have been filled while no wetland functions and services have been replaced by wetland mitigation construction,” said regulatory division chief Jane Hicks of Army Corps San Francisco District in an email responding to questions about the suspension.

Caltrans’ delays in creating new wetlands will now require it to establish another 5.7 acres of wetlands and rehabilitate another 9 acres, she said.

Hicks said in order to resolve the permit issue, Caltrans must identify a way to speed the necessary mitigations or lessen its impacts by decreasing the size of the bypass’ footprint. The latter has been sought by environmentalists who oppose the bypass.

While the first phase of the bypass will be two lanes, Caltrans is building a support system to eventually accommodate four lanes. Environmentalists have long proposed a scaled-down version of the bypass. They say it could save 30 acres of wetlands in Willits’ Little Lake Valley. A project reduction also would save money and protect the many Native American archaeological sites that are scattered throughout the valley, environmental activist Naomi Wagner and others have said. Some of those sites already have been disturbed.

Frisbie said the work suspension could trigger additional delays and costs in the project’s progress.

It also could slow the restart of the project, he said. Many of the workers will find jobs elsewhere and no longer be available when the time comes, Frisbie said. He said 45 people were laid off last week and another 55 will be let go after Tuesday.

The Willits economy also will feel the loss of the jobs, he said.

The suspension is the latest of the 5.9 mile, $210 million project’s problems. It has faced decades of delays stemming from planning and funding issues and in recent years because of lawsuits and protests.

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