My dad told me in 1956 that the Willits bypass would not be built in his lifetime. He died in 1980. Now it appears the bypass may not be built in my lifetime. Last Wednesday (Feb. 28) the California Transportation Commission derailed a $177 million funding plan for the bypass and gave that money to other projects in urban areas.
My dad's prediction occurred just after a four-lane section of Highway 101 was built to bypass the narrow and treacherous two-lane Ridgewood Grade south of Willits. I played in the Willits High School band the day that short section of highway was dedicated, and told my dad afterward that officials said the highway would soon go around Willits and be four lanes to the Oregon border. He scoffed at the idea. Now, more than 50 years after that dedication, the bypass has no state funding, and there certainly is no plan for four-lanes to Oregon.
The bypass is a symbol for how neglected Northwestern California has become by state government since the 1950s. In that time, prosperous fishing and timber industries have declined, the railroad doesn't run anymore and Humboldt Bay port activity is nowhere near what it could be. Humboldt and
Del Norte counties are especially disadvantaged without a four-lane highway capable of handling the longest trucks allowed, an operating railroad between Marin County and Eureka and a functional Humboldt Bay port that could handle overseas freight.
Other areas of the state have prospered because they have the transportation infrastructure and necessary facilities to out-compete the North Coast counties. They have the population, they generate the taxes and they have the most urgent need for more roads.
I am no expert on transportation, but I spent 40 years working in newspapers covering and observing the way communities tackle these problems. My conclusion is that there is no one right way to succeed, but without community support, it is nearly impossible to make meaningful progress. By community support, I mean the people who live, work and raise their children here. Without them, it matters little what agencies, councils, boards and other groups do.
I lived in a Bay Area community where a freeway was widened because people voted to tax themselves to pay off bonds rather than wait for state and regional agencies to relieve traffic congestion. In Arkansas, the people in two counties voted to tax themselves to raise matching funds for a regional airport to help spur economic development.
People know the value that new developments will give their community. I suggest we waste no more time on getting state money from a government that is unwilling to go to bat for our corner of California. The tax money is going elsewhere. We must look to ourselves and our neighbors. We know a worthy cause when we see it.
*- Jake Williams
Jake Williams is a lifelong newspaperman who retired to Eureka from the*Contra Costa Times.