California Department of Transportation

Willits Bypass - Purpose and Need

historic photo
The Willits Freeway and other future projects were discussed at a public meeting held February 1957 in Eureka.

Pre 1987 History

The proposed Willits Bypass project dates back as far as the mid 1950's (see photo). In 1962, the Director of District 1, of the California Division of Highways (later to become Caltrans), approved a project report recommending construction of a four-lane bypass around Willits within the current project limits. In 1963, the California Highway Commission (later to become the California Transportation Commission or CTC) adopted a route bypassing Willits to the east. The alignment would later be known as Alternative A.

In 1969, the Division of Highways improved U.S. 101 by constructing a segment of freeway south of Willits. That project placed excess excavated material as embankment in the southern end of the Little Lake Valley for a future freeway project envisioned to be constructed northward on the adopted route. Funding shortfalls and a lack of local support at that time halted further development of the bypass until 1987 when District 1 began the current project development effort.

Post 1987 History

In 1987, the CTC directed Caltrans to re-evaluate the adopted route (Alternative A) along with other alternatives. In 1988, the Chief of the Office of Project Planning and Design (OPPD) approved a Project Study Report (PSR) investigating the feasibility of constructing a four-lane freeway bypass. The PSR examined six alternatives (including the No Build). The current project alignments are much different from those examined in the PSR. In the letter approving the PSR, OPPD stated, “the District is authorized to complete environmental studies leading to a route adoption.”

Caltrans established a Project Development Team (PDT) to guide the project and established two Technical Advisory Groups (TAGs) to disseminate information to and collect input from interested parties. (The two TAGs were later merged into a single group. The TAGs are currently inactive.)

District 1 held a scoping session in 1989 with resource agencies and the public to determine issues of concern and to solicit ideas on the range of alternatives. As a result of the meetings, the PDT added Alternatives F through R to the six listed in the PSR. In 1990 several important steps occurred. The PDT narrowed the alternatives still under consideration to Alternatives A, C, E, J, K, O, and the No Build Alternative. In addition, the CTC programmed $1.1 million for right of way for the Willits Bypass.

In 1992, CTC staff requested Caltrans to estimate construction costs for a two-lane expressway in lieu of a four-lane freeway. CTC made this request due to limited funding for new projects. In the 1992 State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP), the CTC programmed the Willits Bypass project for $60.5 million construction and $9 million for right of way to construct a two-lane expressway within right of way for the ultimate four lanes. After further study, Caltrans staff determined that a two-lane bypass would neither achieve a level of service (LOS) C, accommodate future traffic growth, nor improve safety as well as a four-lane freeway.

Also in 1992, several other alternatives were investigated as a result of community input. These alternatives used Transportation System Management (TSM) concepts to seek ways to use the existing facilities in lieu of an entirely new route. Concepts that were investigated included improving intersections, introducing a couplet, and widening existing U.S. 101 to four lanes by restricting on street parking. These concepts evolved into the TSM Alternative.

In early 1993, the PDT dropped five alternatives including Alternative O. Later that year, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) suggested study of Alternative K2 (intended to be a wetland avoidance alternative), while Willits City Council suggested study of Alternative L.

In 1994, Caltrans initiated the NEPA/404 Integration process for this project with the Army Corps Of Engineers, National Marine Fishery Service, USEPA, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG). By early 1995, pursuant to the NEPA/404 Integration Process, Caltrans, FHWA, and the participating agencies agreed to the Purpose and Need Statement for the project, and concurred with the nodal choice statement, the criteria for comparisons, and the range of alternatives to be studied.

Engineering and environmental studies continued on several alternatives through 1994. The need to redirect resources to complete seismic safety projects and storm damage restoration projects, as a result of the 1995 storms, caused project efforts to be suspended until 1998. In 1998, with new funding and resources allocated, studies resumed on the alternatives approved by the NEPA/404 agencies. The 1998 STIP supplemented earlier funding and programmed the project for approximately $117 million. The project is included in the current 2002 STIP for approximately $116 million. The Mendocino Council of Governments (MCOG) programmed its entire $17.3 million share of Regional Improvement Program funds to indicate strong local support for the project.

The Draft EIS/EIR discussed the project and project alternatives. This document was circulated for public comment in May 2002. Caltrans and FHWA are preparing a Final Environmental Impact Statement/Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIS/EIR) for the preferred alternative. Selection and approval of the preferred alternative will lead to approvals for final design, permits and a construction project.

Alternatives Considered but Eliminated from Further Study

Eliminated Alternatives Table (PDF 58K) Created May 2002.
Page 3-27 of the DEIS/EIR

A range of reasonable alternatives that potentially could meet the stated project purpose and need were considered by the Project Development Team (PDT), the Willits Technical Advisory Groups (TAG), and the Section 404 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signatory agencies. Alternative alignments were formulated and studied. Many of the alternatives studied had a number of alignment variations resulting from different interchange locations and combinations. Some of these have been eliminated, and some have remained viable for detailed study in the DEIS/EIR.

Five alternatives are studied in the DEIS/EIR. Four of these are freeway alternatives and one is a No Build Alternative. During the project development process, Caltrans held meetings with City of Willits staff, the TAG and interested community groups to develop alternatives for study. Several elected bodies such as the Willits City Council, the Mendocino Planning Commission, the Mendocino Board of Supervisors and the Brooktrails Township CSD also provided input on alternative design alignments.

In 1988, Alternatives A through E along with the No Build Alternative were studied in the Project Study Report (PSR), prepared for the California Transportation Commission (CTC). The six alternatives were presented to the public at an informational public meeting held in Willits on April 6, 1988. On December 5, 1989, Caltrans conducted additional scoping sessions. As a result of the meetings, the PDT added Alternatives F through R to the six listed in the PSR for a total of 19 alternatives to be studied during the project development process. (Map 29 in Volume II of the DEIS/EIR shows these alternatives.)

In 1992, based on the recommendations from the Willits Traffic Advisory Committee, Caltrans investigated a city street type alternative parallel to U.S. 101. This became the Transportation System Management (TSM) alternative. Caltrans also studied a generic two-lane alternative and determined that a two-lane bypass would not achieve a Level of Service C. Reasons for eliminating both alternatives are discussed in the DEIS/EIR (see Section 3.6.1 and Section 3.6.2, respectively).

In 1993, two more alternatives were recommended for study. USEPA suggested study of Alternative K2 and the Willits City Council suggested study of Alternative L. The reasons for eliminating Alternative K2 are discussed in Table 3-5 of the DEIS/EIR.

In early 1993, TAG and PDT meetings were held in Willits to discuss Caltrans staff recommendations to drop a number of design alternatives from further consideration in the project development process. Caltrans staff prepared an alternative location map, a matrix that illustrated the various alternative selection criteria and a list of criteria for interpreting the engineering and environmental matrix. The intended purpose of developing the criteria and matrix was to rank and evaluate the alternatives, which included a combination of alternatives, ranging from alternatives that bypassed Little Lake Valley in the hills to the east (K) and to the west (E). The Willits Bypass Study Team (Caltrans staff) evaluated and ranked alternatives based on ability to achieve the following criteria: cost; hazardous waste conflicts; interregional traffic delay reduction; accident reduction; Section 4(f) impacts; wetland impacts; upland habitat impacts; sensitive species impacts; residential, agricultural, and business relocations; service to local traffic; and engineering feasibility.

Refer to Appendix P of the DEIS/EIR for the recommendation matrix comparing the alternatives. Each of the alternatives was evaluated against several criteria, using a ranking of “excellent” to “poor.” “Excellent” represented an alternative that is superior with respect to a particular criterion and “poor” represented an alternative that is poor with respect to a given criterion. The PDT rejected several of the alternatives for the reasons shown in the matrix and recommended further study on Alternatives A, C1, J1, E3, TSM and No Build.

On May 26, 1994, the NEPA 404 MOU signatory agencies met and agreed to the project purpose and need statement, modal choice statement, criteria for selection of alternatives and the range of alternatives to be studied further. Alternatives C1, E3, J1, K, K2, L, TSM, and No Build constituted the range of alternatives. Preliminary engineering and environmental investigations continued on these alternatives, but due to funding shortages and resource redirection, by 1995, progress was stopped. In 1998, new funding and resources were allocated and studies resumed on the alternatives approved under the NEPA 404 MOU process.

Throughout the scoping sessions, suggestions for various mid-valley interchange locations arose along with variations of a rail alternative. Alternatives F through R came out of the 1988-1989 scoping sessions. In 1998, Caltrans commissioned a Value Analysis (VA) Study that evaluated many of the F through R Alternatives. Several of the VA proposals dealt with reducing construction for the northern portions of the alternatives. Modifying the valley alternatives to the truncated alternatives addressed this concern. A number of alternatives included at-grade intersections and were rejected due to safety concerns. A number of VA study team proposals were implemented. Appendix P of the DEIS/EIR summarizes the highlights of the VA study.

After extensive engineering and environmental investigations, Caltrans determined that Alternatives K and K2 were no longer prudent or feasible and the TSM alternative did not meet the project’s purpose and need, and therefore, reduced the number of alternatives to C1, J1, L, E3 and No Build. In Fall 2000, due to budget constraints, Caltrans decided to truncate or shorten Alternatives C1, J1 and L. The decision to truncate the valley alternatives resulted in Alternatives C1T, J1T and LT. These truncated alternatives were shortened to conform to the existing highway at the north end of the project area and to reduce the costs of former Alternatives C1, J1 and L.