GUEST OPINION: Defending the Willits bypass

  • PC: The sign in Willits calling itself the 'Heart of Mendocino County.'

    10/24/2002: D6: Tiny Willits in central Mendocino County has a bustling main street and some interesting places to shop and eat.

In the next five years, the approved construction project for the U.S. Highway 101 bypass of Willits will become part of our shared regional infrastructure and is the largest new construction project in Mendocino County this century.

Regionally, seven northern California counties have advocated for more than half a century for this project to remove interstate traffic delays from Willits. In my opinion, we have succeeded in guiding this change to our regional interstate infrastructure and its expected impacts, so as to reduce the unavoidable negative impacts of this approved project and gain many local benefits for North Main Street of Willits and the sensitive north Little Lake Valley wetlands. As always, not all will agree.

This four-lane interstate improvement program will be built in two stages, as the expense of adding more than one mile of viaduct — to improve the original design to better serve the floodway functions of the Little Lake Valley's wetlands — almost doubled the cost to construct this bypass. Also the need to mitigate wetland and other construction impacts has added 2,000 acres of managed open space lands to this project and is an additional required cost.

The Willits area Eel River watershed has secured environmental improvements worth millions of dollars and the purchase of downstream public lands, with monitored mitigation projects required to enhance our local Little Lake Valley and the downstream Outlet Creek ecology.

Over much of the last 25 years I have represented the Brooktrails Township on the project development team for the Highway 101 bypass project. I was a constant advocate for appropriate design features and mitigations to the unavoidable social/economic and environmental impacts of constructing these new federal interstate highway roadway segments.

At the first project development team meetings, routes that had been proposed in the 1950s that placed the new highway through the Westside neighborhoods and/or along the rail corridor in Willits were reviewed and rejected, as "environmental justice" laws and regulations passed in 1964 preclude new segments of federal highways from impacting low-income residential areas. The EPA project team representative requested that we also not allow a new route to cross polluted lands that occur in some of Willits' urban areas. Environmental justice issues and the cost to acquire individual homes and businesses, sometimes with eminent domain, must be minimized for a proposed project route to receive the required "Least environmentally damaging practicable alternative" determination. The approved US-101 bypass of Willits route acquired only three homes and avoids potentially tainted lands.

Many other considerations were brought to bear in rejecting any proposed "in-city routes." <NO1>Some people will continue to ignore that this project is a U.S. interstate highway improvement program to service regional users, built to national standards, not some local in-city circulation program to be paid for by federal and state taxpayers.

<NO>As the Brooktrails representative, I advocated for the continued use of the historic North Main Street gateway for the new Highway 101 interchange, to serve the existing entrance to Willits. Our board also requested features to support a future Mendocino County second access roadway to serve the Sherwood Road corridor. Many people also lobbied for the improvements to the existing Sherwood Road intersection with Willits Main Street to serve existing and future regional traffic from the Brooktrails Township to the new highway interchange.

<NO1>The rejected valley US-101/SR-20 interchange would have impacted two square miles of our beautiful central valley area with elevated roadways, and would have created a new business route along Route 20 west, in direct competition with the existing business community located along Willits Main Street. Brooktrails/Sherwood Road regional traffic would be forced to always use local Willits Streets to access this new highway interchange. The EPA representative in the project meetings stated it would be unlikely for the EPA administrator to concur to the additional level of impacts such an interchange placement would incur.

<NO>The placement of the bypass route at the eastern edge of Willits can contain its urban sprawl to the western side of the valley and acts as a new barrier to protect the small ranches, farmland and the valley oaks on the eastside of the valley floor from urban development. We locals must now work to design the required improvements to Willits North Main Street and its intersection with Sherwood Road for our benefit once the bypass opens.

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