A parade of classic cars led the way last Thursday afternoon, November 4th, as CalTrans celebrated Opening Day of the Willits Bypass. A bulletin relased by Big Orange's legendary propaganda shill, Phil Frisbie, Jr., stated that the Chevy Bel Airs and Ford Thunderbirds would be ferrying the likes of Assemblymember Jim Wood and Willits City Councilmember Bruce Burton across Little Lake Valley's beleaguered wetlands as a representation of "the more than six decades that have passed since the conception of the bypass."
It's fitting that CalTrans invoked the 50s origins of this $300 million anachronism with so much relish at this opening ceremony (Big Orange also threw in a wildly disproportionate amount of vapid patriotism, but since it took so long to get this project past the US Army Corps of Engineers, hey!, why not?). The Willits Bypass is a relic of the 50s in the worst sense, recalling a time when the US squandered precious environmental, financial and human resources on the creation of American Suburbia, severely wounding this nation's urban core regions and giving rise to the most urgent problem humanity has ever faced: the global climate crisis.
Philosopher Louis Mumford wrote his classic The Highway and the City in 1958, which included the following assessment of the highway construction binge's impacts: “In many parts of the country, the building of a highway has about the same result upon vegetation and human structures as the passage of a tornado or the blast of an atom bomb.”
If Mumford's words seem exaggerated, keep in mind that the federal government was at the time considering using atomic detonations as a means to improve human transportation and commerce in a literal sense. In 1958, the US initiated Project Ploughshares, so named for the idea of converting nuclear bombs into a tool of "peaceful" engineering, akin to the Biblical concept of beating swords into ploughshares.
The project was the brainchild of Edward Teller, whose passel of Strangelovian Livermore scientists concocted such plans as to cut a new 11,000 foot long railway pass through California's Bristol Mountains using nuclear explosions and to use nuclear bombs as a huge shovel to carve out a harbor in north Alaska. The idea that thermo-nuclear devices might improve human transportation and commerce was a major reason that President Eisenhower backed away from a bilateral treaty with the Soviet Union to ban all nuclear testing.
Like the Ploughshares Project, or the Delta Twin Tunnels, or the idea of damming every flee-flowing river on earth, most engineering ideas conceived in the mid-20th century, but not yet enacted, belong sitting on a dusty shelf.
It's not as though an atomic bomb has gone off in Willits, but the damage from Bypass construction has been large. CalTrans' contractors scraped roughly 900,000 cubic yards of fill from the Mendocino Redwood Company-Mendocino Forest Products abandoned mill site north of Willits (an effective gift of taxpayer funds to the billionaire Fisher family, who wanted the soil gone) and trucked it across 101, dumping it into the wetlands of Little Lake Valley: a collection point for the creeks that flow from the surrounding hills to form the headwaters of Outlet Creek, a mighty tributary of the Eel River.
Although CalTrans claims the Bypass will prevent carbon dioxide emissions by reducing stop-and-go traffic, the construction process alone generated 380,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions — about 90 years' worth of what CalTrans claims to be saving -- if you take at face value the estimates of CalTrans' Draft Environmental Impact Report itself.
All of this might be a little easier to swallow if the product was justifiable in its own terms. In 1992, as the agency was ramping up for the Willits Bypass, its personnel generated an estimate that traffic would increase roughly two percent per year through town across the next two decades.
We’re now almost a quarter century on from that projection, and Willits traffic has remained flat or even declined somewhat. Yet, because of Caltrans’s falsified traffic data, and because “Level of Service C” is the stated goal for the Willits Bypass, CalTrans’ honchos have been able to exclude from consideration all two-lane options for rerouting traffic.
“Level of Service” is a rubric that guides decisions regarding how many lanes are needed in the new roadway to accommodate the amount of traffic projected to use it. As of now, the Highway 58 segment through town is only two lanes. If traffic volumes are above a certain level, though, it becomes necessary based on established policy to build a four-lane freeway that achieve the “level of service” in question.
That’s where CalTrans’ claim that Willits’ population and traffic were on the verge of soaring entered into play. Based on CalTrans’s projection that Willits traffic volume would be increasing 2% per year for the foreseeable future, the only way Highway 101 could achieve “Level of Service C” in the region would be if CalTrans was handed over hundreds of millions from taxpayers to build a four-lane freeway around town.
Countless local residents argued for years that if CalTrans had to build a bypass around Willits, there was plenty of room to do so on the already-existing Northern Pacific railroad corridor for both a two-lane bypass and the railroad. This two-lane route would cost a small fraction of what the now complete Willits Bypass does, while also having a fraction of the environmental impact and avoiding the pristine Little Lake wetlands entirely.
But the project's boosters — including the Mendocino Council of Governments, three-fifths of the Willits City Council, three-fifths of the Board of Supervisors, US Rep. Mike Thompson, Big Labor, Big Trucking, and Chambers of Commerce from Windsor to Eureka — apparently favored the biggest construction footprint and highest cost possible.
Ultimately, Congressional Democrats like Mike Thompson and Jared Huffman each played key roles in steering the project through the Army Corps of Engineers' Clean Water Act permitting process, allowing the largest wetlands fill the Army Corps' San Francisco division has ever permitted. It's also fitting that the Bypass was completed a mere days before Hillary Clinton's near-certain election to the highest office in the land, since the Bypass has been enabled by scores of ethically challenged Democrats who are politically ambitious to a fault.
Of course, a major part of the story of the Bypass involves the hundreds of local residents who strongly opposed the project, including tree sitters and even one occupier of a wick drain stitcher. That opposition will have a lasting political legacy. There's a very good chance that, here in northwestern California, this sort of relic will never get dusted off again.