This is part three of the 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 reason to put in the bypass. Gary Hughes of EPIC will rebut the agency’s position.
FOR: Point 1. The bypass will improve interregional traffic (Through traffic will move past the town without running into multiple stoplights, etc.)
The pros and cons on this issue are at the heart of the controversy over the bypass.
Caltrans’ main reason for building the Willits Bypass is to improve through traffic. Caltrans officials point out that Hwy 101 narrows as it approaches the intersection with Hwy 20. This, as well as local traffic, driveways, stoplights, etc., causes delays. The current average travel time through the project is 18.3 minutes, according to this document hosted by the Mendocino Council of Governments. The document says that projected times for the same trip without the bypass by 2028 is 32.3 minutes. However, the current project will allow the same trip to be made in 9.4 minutes. The agency believes this is a significant improvement for through traffic.
However, Gary Hughes of EPIC believes that Caltrans’ central goal is flawed. Speeding through an area in a shorter time is not a value he shares. He writes:
I think this gets to one of the fundamental issues of reform of the agency, and a reform of the concept of Level of Service. […] For Caltrans, destinations do not exist. It is only about how fast you can drive past a place, never about what it means to be there or arrive there. Willits is a destination, and is a part of our North Coast community. What is the justification for an unnecessary four-lane highway to bypass the town where we eat lunch, do shopping, go to the bank, get online to get work done, make phone calls, play in the park and give our kids a break from the trip?
There are two more major issues that Caltrans argues provides support for the desire to put in the bypass.
FOR:Point 2.The bypass will improve air quality in the valley.
According to Caltrans, one of the valued side effects of building the bypass is improving the air quality in the Little Lake Valley. The agency points out that
…diesel truck exhaust is known to have an effect on health, and diesel trucks produce even higher levels of emissions in stop and go traffic. Because children’s lungs are still developing, they are at a greater risk for developing health problems related to diesel exhaust than are adults.
The Mendocino Air Quality Management district supports the bypass because of air quality issues. Bob Scaglione, Senior Air Quality Specialist and Acting Air pollution Control Officer, wrote:
The Air District supports and encourages the Willits Bypass project, primarily because of the benefit of the significant reduction in air contaminants from idling vehicles and their impact on the local community.
Diesel particulate emissions have been identified by the Air Resources Board as a Toxic Air Contaminant, capable of increasing risks to human health. One of the factors of concern to the District is the affect [sic] of idling vehicles, especially heavy on-road trucks. The nature and constituents of diesel exhaust change during the idling process, producing greater levels of NOx, Particulate, and CO emissions at idle than an engine at full load. Research information at ARB’s web site indicate that particulate at idling is produced in greater quantities at much finer particle size per cylinder cycle than a normally operating engine. This allows for the particles to stay airborne longer and impact a larger portion of the surrounding community.
However, Gary Hughes of EPIC disagrees vehemently. He writes,
This is pure greenwash with no real factual basis. Caltrans has never done a real greenhouse gas emissions (GGE) study concerning this project. There is no body of data developed by the agency to back this claim up. Some folks from the Air Resources Control board made a statement to this effect, but they have NO STUDIES specific to Willits around this issue. This is an unfounded statement. It also ignores the thousands of dump truck loads that will be necessary for construction of this project—by some estimates, it could take decades of reduced traffic in Willits …. to compensate for the air quality impacts of the construction itself.
Furthermore Hughes believes that there won’t be much reduced traffic in Willits anyway. He once again argues that Caltrans’ fundamental picture of the world is off. He says,
Three+ years of construction with literally thousands of dumptruck loads of fill, not to mention the manufacturing of the concrete and other construction activities, these activities have real impacts on local and global air quality and emissions issues. We say again that this is another instance where Caltrans needs to do the math before making any statements about the supposed environmental benefits of this boondoggle project.
FOR:Point 3. The bypass is a model of environmentally sensitive construction.
Caltrans believes that the agency has done an outstanding job creating a project that is environmentally sensitive. Biologist Chris Collison says, “I’m quite proud of the work we’re doing for the salmon.” He says with satisfaction that the “wetlands are actually going to be improved.” Caltrans, he argues, is reducing invasive species, promoting the growth of native species, and helping sensitive species to survive in the area around the bypass.
“To offset impact,” he says, “we worked on ways to help species survive…. So that [this species] can’t wink out, [Caltrans] purchased from willing sellers eight acres of habitat [for the grass], which is a 25-to-1 mitigation. 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” Now he says the land around the bypass has a conservation easement.
Collison describes an attempt by the agency to protect the land around the bypass as if the area were a park. He says the agency is doing all this by “buying lands and controlling what is going on on them, like keeping cattle from depositing waste in streams”; restoring the natural gradients of streams so fish can access “miles” of former habitat; and providing a long term endowment of $5 million to “run the system” — management, policing, working with the ranchers, etc.
Hughes, however, has a simple response to the improvements Caltrans is claiming to be making. “This kind of habitat restoration can happen without building a giant freeway,” he says.
Hughes argues the fundamental basis for these kinds of projects are wrong. In fact, he argues, the whole agency has gone awry and is unable to grapple with the changing needs of our increasingly environmentally conscious society.
The whole picture includes the fact that there is a statewide coalition demanding reform of Caltrans. The real truth is that we do see the whole picture, from Hwy 197/199 to Lost Chance Grade to the Indianola Interchange to Richardson Grove to Willits and beyond, to the Bay Bridge even, we do see the whole picture including global environmental degradation, corruption and purposeful manipulation of the review process to reduce and eliminate public participation by an agency that refuses to innovate at a critical juncture in our existence.
It is time that the whole picture be taken into account. We demand a full legislative inquiry into Caltrans and the way they do business.
Follow the Willits Bypass Blog to get more from the Caltrans’ perspective.
Follow the Save the Little Lake Valley Blog to get more from the anti-Bypass perspective.
At its core, the bypass is proving to be a battleground for two fundamentally different views of life. One side urges slowing down, being smaller and using less. The other side urges innovation and invention to deal with the side effects of going faster and doing more in a modern world.
The first side, the anti-bypass side, sees this fight as a battle for the soul of the country and for the health of the earth.
The second side, the pro-bypass side, sees this project more as a single task that needs to be accomplished—a problem that they have worked extremely hard to solve. They feel they have gone to extraordinary lengths to be be environmentally sensitive and they seem somewhat bewildered that their efforts have failed to garner praise from the other side.
However, the aim of the anti-bypass activist is less to kill the bypass then it is to fundamentally change the nature of Caltrans — which, of course, would eventually mean not only the end of the bypass but all projects like it.