A North Coast lawmaker wants Caltrans to address her concerns about the $210 million Willits bypass before construction resumes on the controversial project.

In a March 5 letter to Caltrans, state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, criticized the agency for failing to adequately investigate alternatives to the project, which will reroute Highway 101 around downtown Willits.

Caltrans is preparing a formal response and expects to resume construction next week, said Phil Frisbie, a spokesman for the agency.

Caltrans halted construction of the bypass Feb. 25 due to the discovery of a bird's nest, which raised concerns about the agency's compliance with the federal Migratory Bird Act.

"Evans understands significant concerns have been raised," said Teala Schaff, Evans' communication director. "While construction is halted, she'd like Caltrans to provide some answers."

Evans' letter outlined five points of concern ranging from traffic management to safety issues involving emergency access along the bypass route. The letter also requested a meeting with Caltrans to discuss the issue further.

Schaff stated Evans' office is still in an "information gathering" stage. The lawmaker's environmental consultant, Tim Roth, and Ukiah district representative, Jeff Tyrrell, met with two of the project's opponents, Willits councilwomen Holly Madrigal and Madge Strong, on Feb. 28 to discuss the issue, Strong said.

"It was very heartening to see Evans write such a powerful letter asking some very pertinent questions before the damage is done," said Strong. "It's a lot of money and a lot of damage, and you need to look before you leap."

Strong said Evans was scheduled to participate in the Feb. 28 meeting before being called to Sacramento for a critical Senate vote.

"We're just waiting to hear back from Caltrans before we move forward with this," said Roth. "I think they (Willits bypass opponents) raise some good questions."

Frisbie outlined the context behind some of the concerns in Evans' letter, explaining the emergency access argument isn't an issue because the new bypass complies with federal regulations for an eight-foot-wide shoulder.

Opponents have sought to halt the project by staging a tree-sitting protest. Amanda Senseman, who calls herself "Warbler," has been sitting in a pine tree 70 feet above the ground since Jan. 28 and is refusing to come down from her perch unless Caltrans agrees to stop the bypass.

"The fact that Noreen Evans is proposing a meeting with Caltrans is so very important," said Sara Grusky, a leader of Save Our Little Lake Valley, one of the community groups protesting the bypass. "It's good to see the issue back on the table again."

Frisbie said Caltrans wrapped up deliberations stemming from the discovery of the bird's nest with the Department of Fish & Wildlife on Tuesday. Construction on the bypass is expected to resume within the next week, he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Melody Karpinski at 521-5205 or melody.karpinski@pressdemocrat.com

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