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Caltrans Problems Inherent in the System

Monday February 3rd, 2014   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 6:11am PST   •  

CalTrans_200As we noted last week, the California Senate conducted a hearing on the problems with the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, which cost some $5 billion more than the original estimate. Bridge construction was delayed 10 years but doubts remain about its safety. Taxpayers should wonder why politicians took so long to conduct the hearing but at least they were able to see it on the California Channel. Just before the November election in 2012, Senate boss Darrell Steinberg, who claims to be devoted to transparency, killed the live broadcast of a hearing on several key ballot measures on taxes and spending.

In the recent bridge hearing witnesses testified that Caltrans bosses ignored and downplayed costly problems, reassigned whistleblowers, and telling engineers not to write things down to avoid public disclosure. One witness called for a “criminal investigation.” Caltrans bosses denied all the problems and said the bridge was safe. Senator Mark DeSaulnier, who conducted the hearing, said “I don’t believe you.” Now come new revelations about Caltrans itself.

Last May, governor Jerry Brown commissioned an independent review of Caltrans by the State Smart Transportation Initiative at the University of Wisconsin. The Initiative’s report did not deal with the Bay Bridge, but as this Sacramento Bee article notes, it pointed out longstanding problems with Caltrans, whose “mission, vision and set of goals” are not well aligned with California’s current needs. The problems are inherent in the system.

Caltrans management practices remain “out of date” and the massive state agency maintains a “culture of fear.” State transportation secretary Brian Kelly conceded that California highways are ranked 48th nationally on pavement condition. But before fixing this, Caltrans likes to “prioritize new construction.” The report called for sweeping reforms but any meaningful change remains unlikely.

As testimony confirmed, a criminal investigation is certainly warranted. Senator DeSaulnier didn’t believe Caltrans apologists, but he has failed to launch such an investigation. As recent events suggest, even a criminal prosecution might not do much good.

Last week a jury found state senator Rod Wright guilty of eight felonies. But Senate boss Darrell Steinberg is keeping Wright on the job. That recalls a solution suggested by Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. “Let’s limit all U.S. politicians to two terms; one in office, and one in prison. Illinois already does this, and it seems to be working.”

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February 2014