Phase 1 of the $210 million Willits Bypass Project is underway and I am starting to feel like one of those tree-sitters that are trying to halt construction. It's not that I support these people; it's just that I have been sitting patiently by the phone for a week now, waiting for a member of the project team to get back to me with more information.

While waiting, I found out that the two-phase project will construct a new segment of Route 101 that will bypass the City of Willits, in Mendocino County, CA. Caltrans says the 5.9-mile bypass will relieve congestion, reduce delays, and improve safety for interregional traffic.

As it winds through Willits and the project area, Route 101 narrows considerably. Caltrans looked at possibly widening the existing roadway, but decided against it because this alternative would displace and impact too much local business.  

Overall construction includes a new, four-lane viaduct highway with two southbound lanes and two northbound lanes. Along with this will be several supporting bridges and interchanges.

Phase 1, which broke ground this past February, will build two southbound lanes and when complete, motorists will use these until Phase 2 begins and constructs the two northbound lanes. 

"Because of the total cost of the project and because of funding issues in California, we couldn't fund a full four-lane project so we broke it into two phases," says Caltrans spokesperson Phil Frisbie.

Frisbie says crews are currently working on site prep work such as brush removal, putting up ESA (environmentally sensitive area) fencing, and bringing equipment for upcoming bridge construction.

Phase 1 construction is being led by the partnership of DeSilva Gates Construction and Flatiron West Inc., for the amount of $107 million. The project is being funded by $136 million in Proposition 1B funds, a 2006 voter-approved transportation bond.

Phase 2, in addition to completing the two northbound lanes, will construct the mile-long viaduct over a flood plain in Little Lake Valley just outside town. Frisbie says this will be a big challenge because the soil in the area is very deep, so every column will be supported by friction piles.

And then there are the protestors who are upset about the discovery of a bird's nest in one of the oak trees slated to be cut down. On March 3, the Highway Patrol removed about seven that were “tree-sitting,” and arrested several others at the project site for trespassing. «

Frisbie says the activists were given more than seven days warning to leave the project site before the police arrived. He says Caltrans has taken appropriate steps with California Dept of Fish and Wildlife to ensure wildlife and environmental safety.

“Some of the protestors believe that we shouldn’t be building any highways; we should be moving away from cars,” says Frisbie.