More than 50 years after people started campaigning for it, the Willits bypass of Highway 101 is close to becoming reality.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued permits Thursday clearing the way for Caltrans to build the bypass in central Mendocino County, though some backers aren't quite ready to celebrate.

"We are surely hoping that it comes to pass," Willits Mayor Bruce Burton said Friday. "We have been led to the altar so many times that we tend to be a little bit reserved."

Nonetheless, North Coast Congressman Mike Thompson, a key supporter, expressed confidence the project would break ground this year.

"The bypass has been decades in the making," he said. "Two years ago the project appeared dead, but we worked with Caltrans, the Army Corps and community stakeholders day-in and day-out."

Caltrans plans to go before the California Transportation Commission next month to request $158 million for the six-mile bypass around the small Mendocino city as well as for environmental mitigations such as fish passages

If funded, the project likely go out for bid in May, Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie Jr. said. Early work, including tree removal, could begin next winter with heavy construction to follow in 2013.

Currently, Highway 101 runs through the heart of Willits, leaving local officials with little control over the city's most important road and clogging downtown with traffic.

"The mood of the downtown merchants is that they are looking forward to having their Main Street back where they will have more control over the design of the streetscape," said Alan Falleri, with Willits Community Development, Redevelopment and Economic Development.

The project will affect nearly 1,670 acres including creeks, woodland and wetlands.

Janet Olave, executive director of Mendocino County Resource Conservation District, said she was pleased with the mitigation measures assured by the Corps.