Problems at Caltrans Show Need for State to Reform the Agency

The recent public revelation that a Caltrans employee submitted fabricated safety test results and destroyed testing data for the $6.3 billion Bay Bridge project is deeply troubling.

First and foremost, everyone is rightly concerned about the safety of the new bridge. Fortunately, that employee can no longer engage in such appalling conduct. After The Bee broke the story – following an exhaustive investigation – Caltrans announced it had fired the offending employee and his supervisor. Furthermore, independent experts are now reviewing the integrity of the foundations for the Bay Bridge project.

However, The Bee’s findings also raise serious questions about Caltrans itself. The Bee found evidence that Caltrans discovered the employee had falsified reports on other projects after he had tested the foundations of the Bay Bridge project, yet took little action against that employee. Regardless of which official knew what and when, by any standard, such a performance by an organization is unacceptable. At a minimum, such findings demonstrate that at Caltrans there is not nearly enough basic accountability.

In contrast, if a private engineering firm falsified test reports and destroyed data, that firm would almost immediately cease to exist. It would be legally liable for tremendous damages. Its invoices would not be paid. Its reputation would be destroyed. No one would hire the firm.

Today, Caltrans – with 22,000 employees – is so large that it is difficult to properly manage. Indeed, Caltrans is far larger than any other state department of transportation in the nation, including transportation departments with project workloads similar to Caltrans. Whereas Caltrans relies on state employees to do 90 percent of its workload, other state transportation departments use fully accountable engineering firms for an average of 50 percent to 60 percent of their workloads.

Many studies have documented Caltrans’ internal problems. For example, the California state auditor found that Caltrans regularly experiences employee cost overruns on projects and fails to keep accurate employee time records, and the state Legislative Analyst’s Office conservatively concluded that Caltrans is overstaffed by at least 1,500 employees.

Adopting the LAO’s recommendation would free up at least $200 million a year for the hard construction of new transportation projects. It would create thousands of new and badly needed construction jobs.

Freeing up this money for actual construction projects is particularly important, because other sources of funding for transportation are rapidly diminishing. Proposition 1B, the $19 billion bond fund passed in 2006, is running out. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act federal stimulus funds are winding down. Traditional federal transportation funding is diminishing. And between inflation and an increasing number of people shifting to high-mileage vehicles, the gas tax is losing its ability to generate revenue.

There is no question of the need to dramatically reform and downsize Caltrans. A particularly effective way of accomplishing that – entirely consistent with Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment proposals – is transferring a substantial portion of the state’s current transportation funds and authority from Caltrans to local transportation agencies.

Since the mid-1980s, county transportation agencies – often referred to as the “Self-Help Counties” or SHCs – have made many major improvements to our highway and transit systems. Today, more than half of the transportation projects that drivers and transit riders see when they travel actually are sponsored by “Self-Help Counties”, not by Caltrans.

The Self-Help Counties have developed a well-earned reputation for speedy, cost-effective delivery of transportation projects and are fully accountable to local voters. The SHCs’ revenue comes from local sales tax measures – typically1/2 cent – dedicated to transportation. Those sales tax measures must be approved by two-thirds of the local voters. If the SHCs do not deliver on their promised projects within a reasonable time, the voters will not renew the sales tax measures. It is as simple as that.

Extending the governor’s realignment proposal to transportation will greatly improve accountability and efficient project delivery. There is no reason to wait. With our economy hurting, our roads and transit systems in terrible shape, and the public rightly expecting safe transportation facilities, now is the time for realignment.

Eddie Kho, PE
ACEC California President

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