Caltrans is seeking an additional $64 million to complete construction on a highway bypass around Willits, a project that has been beset by numerous delays and legal challenges from opponents who think the road is unnecessary and too environmentally damaging.
Caltrans officials have in the past said that the delays, including for running afoul of environmental permits needed to build in sensitive wetland areas, would lead to cost overruns. In a report for the California Transportation Commission’s Dec. 10 meeting, the agency acknowledged for the first time the price of the overrun.
The Commission will decide whether to approve the cost increase, which would add nearly 45 percent to the project’s current budget of $144 million.
“The project has encountered numerous unforeseen issues during the first two construction seasons, which have resulted in unanticipated costs that have exhausted the project’s 10 percent contingency,” said Phil Frisbie, a Caltrans spokesman.
Work on the 5.9-mile Highway 101 bypass that will direct traffic around the town of Willits is 55 percent complete, Frisbie said. It is expected to open in the summer of 2017, two years behind schedule.
The Willits bypass has become one of the most contentious land use battles on the North Coast, pitting environmentalists, whose protests at the construction site have sometimes led to arrests, against transportation planners and business interests, who say the bypass will save drivers as much as 30 minutes and cut down on shipping costs.
“It is unprecedented in our area to have this sort of opposition to a project, which is really cranking up the cost,” Frisbie said.
Some of the more moderate critics think a bypass is needed, but have called for Caltrans to scale down its plan. The agency’s current blueprints call for a 4-lane freeway bypass with diamond interchanges at the north and south ends.
A funding shortfall has forced Caltrans to build a 2-lane first phase of the project while additional money is identified. Opponents think the agency should stop at two lanes and scale back the northern interchange into a smaller roundabout.
“It’s very frustrating that they designed this, and it is more environmentally damaging that it needed to be,” said Madge Strong, a Willits city councilwoman and bypass critic. “It’s not too late. Right now if Caltrans were to say that phase 1 is all they are going to do, it would be a win-win for Caltrans. It would save money, it would save the public outcry and it would save wetlands.”
Frisbie said that redesigning the project now would require additional environmental review and could add another two years to the already overdue project. The level of traffic on the North Coast’s main thoroughfare justifies a 4-lane bypass, he said.
Other reasons for delay include two lawsuits filed in 2012 before the project even broke ground. That legal action triggered additional environmental permits. Another lawsuit last year challenged Mendocino County’s permit that allowed Caltrans to haul a million cubic yards of dirt from a former lumber mill. That brought a temporary restraining order and further delay. Recent wet weather has shut down most work on the project for the winter, Frisbie said.
This past summer, the Army Corps of Engineers suspended its environmental permit because mitigation work was not taking place as required. As a condition of reinstating the permit, Caltrans was required to scale back the northern interchange, saving several acres of wetlands. The redesign pushed construction work on this segment into next season.
The budget increase for the project also includes the cost of having CHP officers patrol the site. During the first two construction seasons, protesters demonstrated at the construction site and even climbed onto some equipment, which forced work to temporarily stop.
Naomi Wagner, an organizer with Earth First, said environmentalists are being improperly blamed for the cost overrun when much of the delay was because of Caltrans’ own mistakes.
“This is what Caltrans does, they blame a scapegoat,” she said. “They routinely blame any opposition for delays that they have caused. If you look a little deeper, you’ll find Caltrans has brought on these expenses themselves.”