[Updated: Sept. 21, 2013]
Throughout this year, a combination of direct action opposition and legal initiatives have slowed construction of the California Department of Transportation’s Willits Bypass, garnering widespread attention and scrutiny of the project. But an effort to compel Caltrans to reduce the size, impacts and costs of the four-lane freeway bypass segment of Hwy 101 around Willits has persisted for more than two decades.
In this time, people who have attempted to stop the highly destructive and wasteful projecthave become intimately acquainted with CalTrans’ methods of gaining approval for large, expensive freeways. In pushing the Willits Bypass, CalTrans has engaged in a pattern of dissembling, influence peddling, exploitation of misunderstandings among regulators, and outright illegality. We are providing this resource both for the benefit of Mendocino County residents who are seeking background on the Bypass, as well as for people who are faced with unnecessary, destructive Caltrans projects in other area of California.
The following key points and documentation comprise the essence of our findings. This page is a work-in-progress that will be periodically updated as more information becomes available.
1. CalTrans ignores the law whenever they find it practical to do so, or whenever they can get away with it.
For more than two decades, Caltrans has worked intensively to secure approval of all regulatory agency permits that establish the protocol they are to follow in constructing the Bypass. Given this oft-contentious history with state and federal regulators, you might think that CalTrans would strictly follow these protocols once the construction finally began.
Yet, on the very first day of construction of the Willits Bypass — February 25, 2013 — Caltrans and its contractor were forced to call off the work they had planned for the day when they were found to be in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act — and, by extension, their own Environmental Impact Report..
The events of that day are worth recounting in some detail, not because the legal violation at issue is particularly unique, but because these events exemplify Caltrans’ pattern of dissembling and evading its legal requirements in a compelling way.Caltrans’ contractors were attempting to install fencing in the southern portion of their intended Willits Bypass route to demarcate the construction area, so that they could begin cutting trees and removing brush. Caltrans spokesperson Phil Frisbie, Jr. was on hand. When activists asked him if the agency had completed all relevant bird surveys, as agreed to with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), he claimed they had.
These activists shortly thereafter discovered bird nests in the project construction swath. They called the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which dispatched a biologist named JoAnn Dunn. Upon arriving at the site, she called off the project for the day. Later, it turned out CalTrans hadn’t completed viable bird surveys, contrary to Frisbie’s claim, but rather had contracted with a private engineering firm to write up a document composed of little over a page of text, roughly half of which described an extremely cursory bird survey. Construction was delayed by over three weeks as the CDFW forced Caltrans to conduct more legitimate bird surveys. Meanwhile, direct actions by project opponents ensured Caltrans contractors didn’t continue with the fencing.
Section 4.8.3 of CalTrans’ Willits Bypass EIR reads as follows: “Pre-construction clearance surveys for nesting sensitive bird species would be conducted by a qualified biologist no less than 30 days prior to the start of vegetation removal. Vegetation removal would be performed during winter where possible to comply with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Survey results would be provided to [California Department of Fish and Wildlife]… upon completion of each survey. If sensitive species were found nesting in the project area or within 0.5 mi (0.8 km) of it, Caltrans would consult with the resource agencies to develop a strategy to further minimize the project impacts to these species.”
This episode was a microcosm of the power dynamics that have shaped the Bypass thus far: Caltrans complies with the law when they are forced to do so. Typically, activists are the ones holding them accountable for these obligations. Absent the pressure from these activists, the regulatory agencies are very often remiss in doing their job.
2. Caltrans sets high and arbitrary goals for a project, which eliminate more reasonable alternatives from serious consideration.
[For a thorough treatment of this issue, see the video “How Caltrans Sold the Willits Bypass.”]
A. Caltrans misuses ‘Level of Service’ standards to eliminate smaller projects: “Level of Service” (LOS) is a subjective measurement of drivers’ perception of their driving experience. LOS is widely used in Caltrans Purpose and Need statements to plan the amount of lanes needed for a project. In Willits and other locations, Level of Service (LOS) “C” has been used as a way to eliminate all two-lane options for alleviating traffic congestion. Because of the way Level of Service is calculated, two-lane highways can rarely meet this high and arbitrary standard. In Olancha, a waypoint on US Route 395 in southern California, Caltrans is using the goal of LOS B as a means to eliminate two-lane alternatives from serious consideration.
B. Caltrans makes false claims that federal agencies and documents dictate highway design features. In the case of the Willits Bypass, Caltrans claimed that they were forced to construct a four-lane freeway because of Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) requirements of Level of Service “C”. Willits-based engineer RIchard Estabrook filed a series of Public Records Act requests to Caltrans and FHWA, confirming this claim to be false. In actuality, the FHWA would have allowed or funded any project that reduced congestion in Willits (see KGO video footage here), regardless of its “level of service.” This lie has been pervasive. Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty used it as a primary justification for the Bypass in a letter to State Senator Noreen Evans. The Army Corps of Engineers referenced it in a legal briefing pertaining to the Willits Environmental Center, et al.’s federal lawsuit. It appears in some of Caltrans’ environmental impact review documents.
(Also see: FHWA_summary by Richard Estabrook)
In the cases of the other new projects that we’ve studied, Caltrans claims that it is “required” to build at least a four-lane expressway because of the Interregional Road System Requirements (IRRS), which “mandate” a minimum of a four-lane expressway. An analysis of the IRRS “requirements” reveals that these are created within Caltrans, and are not enforced by any external agency or law. There has never been any environmental review of the planned expansions to the freeway system anywhere in the state, meaning these documents can only be used for general guidance and not decisions. (Conversation with David Bricker, Caltrans Environmental Planning, August 26, 2013). It appears that approving agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers do not understand the nature of these “requirements”, and that they accept Caltrans claims at face value. (Caltrans letter to USACE).
3. Caltrans justifies the “need” for large projects by dishonestly increasing the amount of traffic projected to use it.
A. High and unsubstantiated growth projections: Caltrans projected a high rate of growth in the Willits Bypass EIR/EIS (2006). Even after eight years of declining traffic volumes, Caltrans never updated the projections, still claiming in 2011 that traffic volumes were increasing. [See graph: the red line indicates Caltrans growth projections that were never updated to reflect changing conditions, and the blue line that shows actual traffic volume. These inflated projections are necessary to convince the public, elected officials and regulating agencies that the project is needed to prevent future congestion.]
According to the Mineta Transportation Institute and USPIRG, cited by Fox news and the New York Times, traffic volumes have been declining since 2005, and no longer follow population growth.
Nevertheless, Caltrans projects a sustained annual growth rate of 1.5% to 4% in all the projects we studied. (These figures are taken from the Environmental Impact Reports or Project/Traffic Reports.)
For example, because of contaminated ground water made famous by Erin Brockovich, people have been leaving Hinkley, CA — site of a proposed Caltrans bypass on Highway 58 — for the last ten years. However, Caltrans claims Hinkley will experience a growth rate of four percent per year. See chart.