Notes from Transportation Forum

by Madge Strong

How do and how can Willits area residents get moving. That was the question addressed by five presenters at a transportation forum sponsored by WELL (Willits Economic Localization) on June 26 at the Little Lake Grange. The subjects covered included the status of the CalTrans freeway bypass, the Sherwood Road/101 intersection, rails and trails opportunities, the Willits Creek trail, Brooktrails 2nd access, downtown improvements, south Main St. safety, the Railroad Ave./Baechtel Road or Shell Lane connection, and testimonials from people using alternatives to vehicles.

101 Bypass:
Holly Madrigal, Willits City Councilwoman and member of the WELL Coordinating Committee, provided an update on the CalTrans101 bypass. This controversial project, in the works for decades, is still in limbo. In June last year, the California Transportation Commission approved the project (hoping to qualify for 80% federal funding), contingent on CalTrans obtaining required permits. Due to the project’s unprecedented impact on wetlands and inadequate proof of mitigation, the Army Corps of Engineers refused to issue a permit in time for the federal funds deadline. Since then, CalTrans has apparently worked out an agreement with the Corps to allow a 2-lane bypass (rather than the planned 4-lane freeway), and may have other State funds for the project. However, there is still a major glitch on the wetland mitigation acreage – a huge area of Little Lake Valley – as to whether grazing use can continue. Given the on-going uncertainties, CalTrans is planning to host another public meeting in late July or early August. Stay tuned! At least three other issues are linked to resolution of the 101 bypass: relinquishment of Main St. to the City of Willits; the Sherwood Road/Main Street intersection; and alternatives for a second access route for Brooktrails. Diagrams of a proposed Sherwood Road redesign were available. See below for the other two issues.

Larry Stropes and Lisa Mace from the Willits Rotary Club discussed the concept of multi-use trails, sometimes along side existing or unused railroad rights-of-way. Rotary is pledging a high-priority effort this year to get some trails underway, citing examples in Ukiah, Healdsburg, Ft. Bragg and other locations. Several potential trail segments are easily identified in Willits, such as along Haehl Creek or along the RR in back of Safeway. They believe a public/private coalition of groups, along with grant funds, could get this happening.

Willits Creek Trail:
Another very important trail would link Brooktrails to downtown Willits along Mill Creek and Willits Creek. This trail used to be open to the public in the 1980’s and 90’s but was closed by private landowners due to vandalism. Bob Whitney is part of a group working with the Golden State Land Conservancy; they have already bought 21 acres plus access at the town-end of this trail, which will be open for use by appointment only. They are still working on agreements that could enable some access to the connecting trail.

While grants or one-time funds may secure and develop trails, a key issue will then be on-going maintenance. Whitney suggested a .Little Lake Recreation District. that would secure on-going tax funds. An audience member mentioned places that arrange community management. The next speaker, Mike Chapman, Director of Brooktrails Community Service District, also emphasized the critical value of the Willits Creek trail, since bike and pedestrian use of Sherwood Road is a disaster waiting to happen.

Brooktrails Second Access:
Chapman’s main topic was the need for a second vehicular access route in and out of Brooktrails. Sherwood Road, designed for 2,500 vehicles per day, is now carrying an average of 9,000, not to mention what would happen in the event of an emergency. There are illustrations of six different potential routes currently being evaluated in a $459,000 study by MCOG (Mendocino Council of Governments). This project is linked to final plans for the 101 Bypass, since the route should connect efficiently with Main Street near the north intersection of 101.

Downtown Improvements:
The improvements on W. Commercial Street, though controversial (especially the lack of a right turn lane onto Main Street), can be a model for more pedestrian- and bike-friendly designs. The Willits City Council has scheduled a public form on the W. Commercial St. improvements on Thursday, July 28, at 4:30 p.m. at City Hall. Topics include the configuration of the planters, the street-side outdoor dining, and other issues. Such a design was developed by volunteer residents and businesspeople for a segment along Main St. between Van Lane and Mendocino Ave., but the City Council narrowly rejected the project, despite available Prop 1B funding. The Main Street group has been inactive since that rejection. Two council members, Bruce Burton and Victor Hanson, have been negotiating with CalTrans over what improvements are expected before CalTrans relinquishes N. Main Street when the 101 bypass is built.

S. Main St./Other Road Improvements:
The portion of Main Street south of Highway 20 will continue to be owned by CalTrans even after a bypass is completed. Although City staff had urged CalTrans to make safety improvements for years, the recent fatality on that stretch has raised the red flag, and CalTrans is now considering pedestrian crossings with a raised median. CalTrans is apparently also looking at the possibility of restoring a right-hand turn at the intersection in front of Safeway. Another long-standing pedestrian accident waiting-to-happen is a crossing on Highway 20 at Blosser Lane/Coast Street. The City has similarly urged CalTrans to make safety improvements. (Barring pedestrian crossing there seems unrealistic.)

A connection from Baechtel Road to Railroad Ave/Shell Lane is another potential project that could significantly reduce congestion on S. is currently rebuilding the RR Ave. bridge, but further steps have not yet been pursued.

Alternatives Testimonials:
The final section of the afternoon forum was hearing from people using alternatives to vehicles to get around, both what works and what doesn’t. Most bicycle-riders bemoan the lack of safety along (and lack of alternatives to) Main Street, especially south of Highway 20. On the other hand, they say biking is healthy, energy-efficient, low-cost, and fun! A Willits Biking Club is being formed. It is critical to keep your bike safe (air in tires, good chains and brakes, lights). All bikers and pedestrians are urged to wear white or bright, as well as having lights, at dusk and night! Ben Wilcox described the different rules that apply to Segway riders, treated somewhat more like pedestrians than bicyclists. Mary Zellachild spoke out for pedestrians as well as for keeping our public transit options. She feels better promotion of MTA could increase ridership to reverse or avoid service cutbacks. Roy Krausen notes his experience that bus connections to the Bay Area work very well