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The Willits freeway bypass opened to the public late Thursday afternoon, signaling a new beginning for the city of Willits and a speedier route for commuters and travelers driving past town on Highway 101.

During opening ceremonies, local, state and federal officials recalled the decades of trials and tribulations that preceded completion of the controversial $300 million bypass, which skirts Willits to the east. The 5.9-mile project had been delayed by debate, protests, lawsuits, construction snafus and budget issues since it was first proposed 60 years ago.

“Obviously this has been a long time in the making,” Caltrans director Malcolm Dougherty told a crowd estimated at more than 1,000.

He recalled someone long ago telling him the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series before the bypass opened.

“And here we are, they did yesterday and we’re opening up the bypass,” Dougherty quipped.

“I knew this day was going to come. I wasn’t quite sure I’d still be alive,” said Phil Dow, who, as director of the Mendocino Council of Governments, promoted the project for more than three decades.

But the lighthearted moments were tempered by the dedication of a 1.1-mile viaduct to Jesse D. Pittman, a 27-year-old Navy SEAL from Willits who was among 30 troops killed when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan in 2011.

“He will forever be in our memory and we will forever be grateful to Jesse for his sacrifice,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena.

The ceremony included a presentation by Cal Fire’s kilt-clad, bagpipe-playing Local 2881 honor guard, a rendition of taps performed by a retired Army staff sergeant, and the presentation of a plaque to Pittman’s family.

“It was quite a nice honor,” Pittman’s mother, Ida Pittman, said following the event, which concluded with a motorcade of classic cars, apropos to the many decades it took to get the bypass constructed.

Absent from the ceremony were signs of the protests that had punctuated the nearly four years of construction on the bypass. While hailed by many as a way to reduce traffic jams and air pollution from idling semi trucks on Highway 101 as they passed through the city of some 5,000 residents, the project had faced vociferous criticism over its size, location and impacts on wetlands and Native American cultural sites. People attending the opening ceremony — some who walked nearly 2 miles along the highway to attend — mostly voiced appreciation for the bypass and for Pittman.

“I’m for the bypass,” said Diana Franceschini of Willits.

She also had known Pittman and wanted to pay her respects.

Franceschini said she believes the bypass will alleviate the traffic that backs up on Main Street, which doubled as Highway 101 until Thursday, reduce smog from the idling vehicles and make it safer for pedestrians.

“I think it’s a great thing,” said former Mendocino County Supervisor Richard Shoemaker, now city manager of Point Arena.

But, like many others, he believes Willits businesses and the city’s tax rolls initially will take a financial hit with the loss of highway traffic.

“I think it’s going to be a little bit devastating at first,” said Jim Holmes, a Willits resident. But he and his wife, Barbara, expect it will recover and become more like Cloverdale, where they lived when it was bypassed by Highway 101 in the early 1990s.

“It’s such a cool little town,” Barbara Holmes said.

Construction of the bypass was expected to cost $210 million and take three years to complete when it began in 2012. It would take almost four years to finish and cost $300 million.

Framework for a 150-foot section of the viaduct collapsed during construction in January 2015, seriously injuring three workers. State officials levied a total of $165,000 in fines against Caltrans and two construction companies for the accident.

Willits City Councilwoman Holly Madrigal called the opening of the bypass “a new day for our community.”

How the community rises to the challenge of remaking itself into a pedestrian-friendly destination will make all the difference in how quickly it bounces back, she added.

“This closure allows us an opportunity to rebuild our downtown,” said Willits Mayor Bruce Burton. “It is an exciting day.”

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 707-462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter

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