Supplemental Funds for the Willits Bypass Project

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Flatiron West, Inc. employees placing concrete on a section of the viaduct on January 6, 2015.

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) went before the California Transportation Commission (CTC) on December 10, 2014 to request $64.7 million in supplemental funds to complete the construction of the Willits Bypass project.  The funds were unanimously approved.

One of Caltrans’ many goals is to responsibly manage California’s transportation assets.  In order to keep the community informed to the greatest extent possible, the following is a synopsis of issues surrounding the necessity for additional funding.  The project has encountered numerous challenges during the first two years of construction which have increased costs and delayed completion of the project by approximately two years.  The following have contributed to the $64.7 million in supplemental costs.

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Caltrans and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff meet at the project worksite on January 28, 2014.

Environmental Regulation

Due to unforeseen circumstances, some permitting agencies added additional requirements after project bid opening.  Some of the changes included, stricter bird survey protocols, increased mitigation, Oil Well Hill borrow site final permit delays, temporary permit suspension, and increased erosion control measures including the installation of an active water treatment system at the south interchange.  Caltrans personnel are also assessing a potential redesign of the north interchange.

Lawsuits

In 2012, as the project went out to bid, Caltrans and the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE) were sued in Federal Court for alleged noncompliance with the National Environmental Policy Act.  Although the court ruled in Caltrans’ and USACOE’s favor in late 2013, the defense of the lawsuit entailed costs and the pending lawsuit was used by the protestors as justification to slow down the project.  In 2013 the filing of a lawsuit against Mendocino County caused the county to revoke a grading permit issued to Mendocino Forest Products (MFP).  The MFP site is currently the preferred borrow site for the bypass project.  In 2014, after Mendocino County reissued MFP a permit, a lawsuit was filed against MFP and Mendocino County, and a temporary restraining order was issued by a court, which again delayed the use of MFP as a borrow site.  The lawsuit was since dismissed after the judge rescinded the restraining order in September 2014, and the MFP site is currently available for the next season after two seasons of delays.

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A tree sitter within the bypass construction area on April 16, 2013.

Protests

Even before vegetation clearing began early in 2013 protestors began trespassing onto State right of way and established tree sits within the construction area.  Other direct actions by the protestors included laying down in front of equipment, chaining themselves to equipment, climbing the towers of equipment so they could not be used for days, and disrupting public meetings being held by permitting and local agencies.  Such direct actions have resulted in millions in added costs for the California Highway Patrol to provide security and remove trespassers.  Protestors also promoted phone call and letter writing campaigns filled with misinformation about the project directed at permitting agencies and legislative officials, causing a diversion of resources to address the misinformation.

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A sign warns construction workers to stay out of a culturally sensitive area.

Cultural Resources

The bypass is being constructed in the Little Lake Valley, which is known to have centuries of Native American tribal activities. While known cultural sites were identified during project development and avoided, more have been identified both before and during construction.  Additional costs have been incurred due to increased tribal monitoring, avoiding the additional cultural resources, increased meetings/consultations with tribal representatives and the State Office of Historic Preservation, and revising agreements with the tribes.

Other Issues

Other issues, common with many large projects, included plan changes to fit field conditions, discovering contaminated wood in an old structure being removed, and differing site conditions that had to be addressed.

Conclusion

Much of the supplemental funding can be directly attributed to the protests and lawsuits, with the remaining needed to cover the increased environmental permitting, cultural resources, and other unforeseen construction related issues.