ABC7 News has learned a controversial freeway project that Caltrans claimed cost $300 million actually cost $460 million, 50 percent more than the agency told the public.
Documents obtained by ABC7 News show Caltrans has been giving out the wrong total cost figures for the Willits Bypass on Highway 101 in Mendocino County for the past five years.
The new freeway opened last November. It is 6 miles long, with two major overpasses, designed to route cars and trucks around a traffic bottleneck in the tiny town of Willits.
Willits Mayor Gerry Gonzalez is glad to see it finally finished. "Getting commercial truck traffic off of Main Street and making it a safer community is important," he said.
But the project divided the community, with some residents and environmental groups saying it was too big and caused too much damage to protected wetlands and streams. They wanted a smaller cheaper road.
Caltrans was forced to scale back from the planned four lanes to two lanes. Even so, there was still major environmental impact and the project kept getting more expensive, but Caltrans did not report the full extent of the increase to the public.
When the project broke ground in 2012, Caltrans official financial plan showed the total cost estimate for the bypass project as $290 million, but the agency told ABC7 News and the public it was $210 million.
In 2015, Caltrans told the public the project cost was up to $300 million, and stuck with that figure through the freeway's opening day. But an internal agency document shows by then the total was really $450 million dollars.
Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie said he saw the new total but did not give it to the public because he was not sure it was correct. It was.
Six weeks after opening, another Caltrans document shows the cost had gotten even higher, $459 million. But Caltrans did not issue a correction.
Frisbie said Caltrans was not hiding the cost, it was an error. "All I can say is Caltrans is made up of imperfect people just like every other organization. We did our best for transparency."
The Willits Bypass already survived a parade of problems, including a major construction accident that injured three people, major issues with required environmental mitigation, and accusations of serious negligence for Caltrans' handling of Native American archaeological sites in the construction area.
Frisbie said the reason Caltrans gave out the wrong cost figures was a "discrepancy is due to some cultural changes at Caltrans." He is referring to what Caltrans calls support cost, which is the cost of the Caltrans staff who work on each project.
For many years the agency did not include its own employees in total project costs, but after years of criticism that changed. According to Frisbie, "It's been Caltrans policy since about 2008 when we really started officially saying we need to make sure we include all the support costs because that gives the public really a better idea."
Frisbie admitted that policy was not followed on the Willits Bypass. He cited changing policies and accounting systems, and told ABC7 News he thought the totals he gave the public included support costs, but they did not.
Caltrans documents show support costs roughly doubled during the construction. They were estimated at $79 million in 2012, and up to $155 million by 2015. None of that was made public.
ABC7 News wondered why the Willits Bypass project managers did not alert Frisbie he was giving out the wrong figures, especially since they were creating internal spreadsheets that clearly showed the cost increases.
We wanted to ask Matt Brady about that. He is director of the Caltrans district that includes the Willits Bypass, the most expensive project ever in that district. Brady said he was busy and preferred Frisbie do the interview.
We showed the documents with the real bypass cost to some of the critics who fought the freeway. They did not buy Caltrans' explanation.
Ellen Drell with Willits Environmental Center said, "The real question is why, why does Caltrans hold such power over the public purse that they would get away with lying to the public to the tune of 150 million dollars or more?"
After our interview with Caltrans, the agency posted a blog with the true cost of the bypass. The total could still go higher because Caltrans will be working for years to finish the environmental requirements. That work already accounts for $90 million of the $460 million cost.
(Courtesy KGO/ABC7 News)