Caltrans Bypass – Update 11-1-13
Many people think the bypass is a “done deal” given the amount of construction already completed. Maybe so; maybe not… The latest obstacle or opportunity is that the lowest bid for constructing the mitigation infrastructure (grading, fencing, planting) came in at $39 million – three times the Caltrans estimate of $13 million. Caltrans does not have funding for this shortfall. The $39 million is only part of the price tag. Once “constructed,” the wetland mitigation lands also require monitoring and corrective measures (estimated at another $13 million), and then long-term management in perpetuity (under-estimated by Caltrans at $11 million). Mitigation is a requirement of both the US Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) and Water Board permits, due to the 68+ acres of wetlands being destroyed in Phase 1 of the project. The agencies recently submitted 40 pages of comments on the mitigation plan which are not resolved, with no assurance of “success” or a long-term manager. Normally, the project should not have proceeded until mitigation was assured. Bypass construction is mostly winding down for the winter. This hiatus offers an opportunity for decision-makers to alter the project, reducing both the costs and impacts. WELL and SOLLV (Save Our Little Lake Valley) are calling for downsizing the I-5 style 40-acre northern interchange. Instead, a simple intersection or roundabout (both already designed by Caltrans) would connect the two-lane bypass to the existing two-lane highway north of town. This change-order could: * Avoid paving and dewatering approximately 30 acres of wetlands * Avoid further destruction of Pomo cultural sites * Potentially reduce the disruption and cost of the mitigation plan * Substantially reduce the amount of fill required (thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions from trucking and compaction) * Allow the wick drains to either be removed or remain unactivated (so far only a fraction of the fill has been placed on the northern area) * Eliminate three bridges over Upp Creek and a fourth bridge of the northbound lanes * Significantly reduce the project costs. The savings could help pay for not-yet funded “child” projects, such as the Sherwood Road intersection improvements. Agency notices of non-compliance (some have already been issued) are not sufficient. Spending more taxpayer funds is a poor choice. There are virtually no options to increase mitigation to compensate for violations or delays. Meanwhile, the contractor now has official approval for use of City streets (with more closures and hauling expected next season). The project also uses large amounts of water for dust control, compaction, and cement, including some from wells and some from the City’s treated waste water. (Note that this may be affecting Valley wells but is NOT affecting the City’s potable water, which comes from its own watershed.) The Federal lawsuit on the bypass is still pending, with no ruling forthcoming. There are also County cases pending against protestors who committed civil disobedience. We urge people to contact ACE, the Water Board, Governor Brown and others. Check www.savelittlelakevalley.org for contact information and latest news. Whatever happens in Little Lake Valley, perhaps lessons learned here can help rein in Caltrans excesses in other places, including Richardson Grove.
Caltrans Bypass – Update 8-30-13
Although construction has proceeded at a rapid rate this summer, there are still viable opportunities to affect the outcome of the Caltrans freeway bypass project. On July 9th, citizen representatives met with Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty in Sacramento, presenting detailed data showing that a two-lane bypass was adequate to handle projected traffic and, more importantly, that Caltrans had consistently misled officials and agencies in claiming the Federal Highway Administration required a 4-lane freeway. Dougherty did acknowledge that the FHWA claim was “not the right choice of word” but dismissed the data as “insignificant.” Not surprisingly, Caltrans is intransigent in supporting its planned project. In early Spring the contractors (the DeSilva Gates & Flat Iron Joint Venture, or JV) began using City streets for hauling, in conflict with the City-Caltrans Relinquishment Agreement that requires prior approval for such use (and the EIR that stated only haul roads would be used). For many months the JV was granted “grace” for continued use of City streets while an Ad Hoc Committee negotiated. Then the City Council on Aug. 14th approved in concept terms offered by the JV, allowing use of five City streets, with the JV repaving a .4 mile segment of E. Hill Road (from Baechtel to City limits) and paying a $20,000 use fee. The written legal agreement is up for final Council action in September. Meanwhile, City staff issued a permit allowing the contractor to completely close off E. Hill Road from 7am to 7pm daily for up to two months. This has caused extreme inconvenience to more than 1,000 residents of the eastern valley and hills, as well as aggravating traffic congestion in town. The contractors’ need for large amounts of water (for dust control, compaction, and cement) has also been controversial. It appears some water has come from private wells in the valley, and the City has also provided treated waste water. An unexpected issue arose when the contractor began trucking fill to the northern interchange area from the old mill site about two miles north of town. The County had issued a quick permit to the mill owner (Mendocino Forest Products) to “improve” its property by excavating 884,000 cubic yards of fill. After a lawsuit was filed, County staff rescinded that improper permit. Contractors are instead now trucking fill through town at night from the southern excavation to the northern fill site. A significant new wrinkle is the notice of non-compliance issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) to Caltrans on Aug. 16th. ACE, mandated to assure no net loss of wetlands, gave a permit for the bypass based on stringent conditions, including an expensive, untried mitigation plan to compensate for paving over 80 acres of wetlands. Among other concerns, ACE is questioning the impact of the 55,000 wick-drains in the 40-acre northern interchange wetland area. To date no analysis has been provided. Most recently, I brought to Willits City Council on Aug. 28th a draft letter to the Governor in support of a compromise. The letter asked the Governor to explore with Caltrans the option of scaling back the 40-acre northern interchange to a simple two-lane highway connection (less than 10 acres), potentially saving money, time, wetlands, traffic disruption, minimizing flood and hydrologic risks, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while allowing work to proceed expeditiously on the 2-lane bypass as planned. Despite a packed house with about 20 speakers supporting the idea, the Council failed to take action by a 2-2 tie vote. (Holly Madrigal and I voted yes; Larry Stranske and Ron Orenstein against. Bruce Burton was absent, but would likely have recused himself due to a conflict of interest.) The Brooktrails Board is still considering a follow-up letter, possibly raising concerns not addressed in their previous support for the bypass. They will likely take action at their meeting of Sept. 11th. The Federal lawsuit on the bypass is still pending, with the judge expected to issue a ruling by Sept. 21st. There are also legal cases pending at the County on protestors who committed civil disobedience. Finally, good news: This year’s construction season is scheduled to end on Oct. 15th. Starting Oct. 1st, contractors will be “buttoning down” the project (erosion control, storage of supplies, etc.) for the winter.
Bypass Update – 5-1-13
Both construction activity and community opposition to the Caltrans Bypass have been escalating at a feverish pace over the past two months. It’s possible that game-changing events will happen within the next few weeks. * On Mar. 26th, a large presence of California Highway Patrol (CHP) were brought to Willits, with arrests of protestors attempting to block vegetation removal and fence building in sensitive habitat areas south of East Hill Road. * On April 2nd (the same day Sen. Noreen Evans had scheduled a meeting with Caltrans director Malcolm Dougherty in Sacramento), Amanda Senseman “Warbler” and 5 other tree-sitters were extracted, and major tree cutting began. Media and citizen monitors were denied any access as further construction continued. * A celebratory rally was held on April 6th by the citizens group Save Our Little Lake Valley (SOLLV) at Recreation Grove park. * SOLLV tried to meet with Caltrans representatives at their Willits headquarters on April 24th. Initially denied a meeting, about 50 people gathered in the parking lot. Eventually, Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbee spoke with the group. Later two elderly protestors were arrested for blocking vehicles. In all, there have been 20 arrests to date. SOLLV itself has not sponsored direct action or civil disobedience but has affirmed its commitment that any protests by related groups or individuals adhere strictly to non-violence and respectful behavior. SOLLV volunteers have collected nearly 3,000 signatures on local petitions; more than 2,000 have signed on-line. A vast majority of local business people have also petitioned to halt the Caltrans design and implement better options. On April 28th, SOLLV held a forum on wetlands, watershed and wick-drains, moderated by Sheriff Tom Allman and attended by about 140 interested citizens. The informative presentations by David Partch, Rosamond Crowder and Bob Whitney (and audience Q&A) revealed that many potential impacts on wells, flooding, wetlands, and streams from this massive project have not been adequately studied. In the first days of May, more dramatic events are unfolding. * Two recent tree-sits were vacated (when it was clear construction was not imminent), while a new tree-sit began in the wetland habitat at the proposed northern interchange. * The Sherwood Valley Rancheria has raised serious concerns about the project’s impact on cultural resources and Caltrans’ failure to consult with them. Caltrans apparently has agreed to a temporary halt to fence-building, vegetation clearing, pile-driving, excavation or grading in the area north of E. Hill Road until May 8th or longer, so that tribal representatives can fully assess the potential impacts and decide on further action. * A demand for a stop-work order has been submitted by Keep the Code (on behalf of SOLLV) to the CA Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, based on Caltrans violations of CDFW’s permit conditions. * A delegation of more than 30 concerned citizens from SOLLV spent two days lobbying in Sacramento May 2nd and 3rd. They met with many key officials, asking their help in halting this unnecessary, wasteful, and destructive project. * Caltrans is asking the California Transportation Commission, at its May 7th meeting in Los Angeles, to allocate $31 million in mitigation funds for this project. This would be part of the $210 million initial price tag for “phase 1” (only 2-lanes of the 4-lane design but with ¾ of the impacts). A delegation from SOLLV is making the trek to LA to oppose this waste of tax dollars on an unnecessary project. The goal of all this citizen activism is to halt further irreparable harm to our valley and allow time to instead consider less costly, less damaging alternatives to alleviate Willits’ traffic congestion – options that were unilaterally rejected by Caltrans over a decade ago. WELL has endorsed and sponsored SOLLV because this project would negate many of our objectives for localization, including taking farmlands out of production, major impacts on water and stream resources, and harming local tourist-related businesses. The bypass would be a relic of a growth and fossil-fuel-dependent mindset, at a time when we urgently need to shift direction to green, sustainable, local-friendly solutions. Go to www.savelittlelakevalley.org for more information on the issues and latest activities.
Bypass Update – 3-1-13
It may be the 11th hour. But it’s not too late.
Last year, Caltrans got permits (with conditions), partial funding, and awarded the contract to begin construction of Phase I of their long-planned freeway bypass. Phase I would only pave two-lanes of the I-5 style freeway, but builds the footprint for virtually the whole project – six miles long, 200 feet wide, 20-30 feet high -- through Little Lake Valley.
A lawsuit filed by several environmental groups and joined by the California Farm Bureau contends that the project is not the least damaging practical alternative and that the environmental reports did not adequately address major changes in the project and mitigation. This lawsuit is to be heard on June 7th.
Recently, a treesit began just as contractors were scheduled to “top” the trees preparing for leveling and filling approximately 30 acres at the southern interchange. At press time, that work has not yet begun, and the Dept. of Fish & Wildlife ordered a (possibly temporary) hold to assess impacts on migratory bird habitat.
WELL went on record years ago recommending better alternatives to this freeway design. ThCaltrans did NOT seriously considered these alternatives, explicitly rejecting any two-lane options as “not meeting project objectives” and as unsafe. (Ironically, that’s all they’re now funded to build.)
Last month, the WELL Coordinating Committee reaffirmed our concerns that this project would cause grave and needless harm to our community and environment. Among the impacts are: * Greenhouse gases: Construction, involving thousands of truckloads of fill, is estimated to contribute over 80 times the carbon footprint as annual savings from reducing stop-and-go traffic. * Congestion: 75% of in-town traffic is local and highway 20 traffic that this project does little to alleviate. (Indeed the bypass adds a new stop sign and back-up point at the southern interchange.) * Local Economy: Caltrans estimated 26 local businesses would fail, and others suffer losses, as a result of the bypass. City sales tax revenue would also drop. * Wetlands & Streams: This is the largest wetland fill of any project in northern California in 50 years. It will degrade five streams that are part of the longest Coho salmon run in California. There are also potential impacts on flooding and aquifers in the valley. * Agricultural Land: The project will impact 2,000 acres of farmland, 400 of those acres taken completely out of production.
If all this were a necessity, it might be unavoidable. But through-traffic travels easily on the two-lane highway north of Willits, where this bypass ends. The traffic volume simply does not justify an I-5 style freeway.
All of us want what is best for our community. WELL believes that it’s worth another concerted effort to consider alternatives that can solve local, regional and through traffic needs, while avoiding the huge expense and devastating impacts of the Caltrans project.