The controversial 6-mile Highway 101 bypass around Willits cost 50 percent more than what was reported by Caltrans when it opened the freeway last year, raising its total price tag to $459 million and fueling pointed criticism of the state agency.
Caltrans officials say the $159 million discrepancy stems from unintentionally failing to include the department’s own staff time in publicly released financial reports. Reporting staff time on that particular project wasn’t required by law, but it was internal Caltrans policy, officials said.
“This was an oversight on our part,” Caltrans District 1 Director Matt Brady said in a prepared statement.
Critics of the Willits bypass and Caltrans’ management aren’t so sure.
“Caltrans is clearly asleep at the wheel here and continues to waste taxpayer money for this environmentally destructive highway boondoggle,” said Aruna Prabhala, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity in Oakland, part of a statewide coalition that fought the bypass in 2013. “Caltrans doesn’t have a blank check from the taxpayers to destroy the environment and build unneeded highways. “There needs to be a clear explanation to the public about what went wrong here and what Caltrans is doing to fix it.”
The controversial bypass opened in November, moving Highway 101 from the middle of Willits to the wetlands and farmlands on its outskirts. Many lauded the reduction of traffic jams and pollution, but others in the city of 5,000 said the bypass was too big, with too many negative environmental, cultural and economic impacts.
“It makes me wonder if they intentionally didn’t want people to know how expensive this project really was. My feeling has been that it was way more expensive and destructive than it needed to be,” said Willits City Councilwoman Madge Strong, who had been among those who preferred a smaller bypass.
While it’s just two lanes, the partially raised bypass has a footprint large enough to accommodate two additional lanes in the future.
The cause of the failure to report staff costs likely was confusion among employees, Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie said.
Until 1998, Caltrans’ internal staffing costs were not reported as project costs. Staff costs include administering projects, and conducting environmental reviews and hearings.
While staff costs were tracked, only costs incurred by hiring outside contractors and consultants were included in financial reports, Frisbie said.
The logic was that Caltrans staff are paid, no matter what project they’re working on.
A change in state legislation that year required such reporting but exempted older, pre-existing projects like the Willits bypass — which had been on the drawing board for 60 years — and very small projects, Frisbie said.
Then, in 2008, a Caltrans director decided staff costs should be included in all projects’ public financial reports for the sake of transparency. But apparently not everyone got the message, Frisbie said.
Frisbie said he didn’t reveal staff totals to the media because, until recently, he, too, was in the dark.
It’s an unfortunate mistake, but Willits City Councilman Ron Orenstein said it’s not really an issue for him and doesn’t alter his support of the project.
“I was never upset about what it was going to cost,” he said. “It’s not like we in Willits are paying for the bypass. If they want to spend $300 million to $400 million on our little bypass to relieve congestion on our little street, it’s fine with me.”