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Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen has noticed that the California Department of Transportation, also known as Caltrans, is paying “3,500 people to just be sitting around at a desk.” As Andrew Holzman notes in the Sacramento Bee, Olsen wants to cut those 3,500 full-time positions, for a saving of $500 million, half a billion dollars. As Holzman explains, “Their proposal is taken from a 2014 Legislative Analyst’s Office report, which says Caltrans has too many engineers who prepare and oversee construction projects. The cut represents about a third of those positions, which the analyst’s report suggested could be eliminated without an effect on transportation work.” Caltrans bosses immediately cried foul.
Jim Davis, chief of project management, told Holzman, “we’d stop working on projects” and “we wouldn’t have the money to do any future projects the legislature might be contemplating.” Bruce Blanning, executive director of Professional Engineers in California Government, criticized the legislative analyst as “childlike” and said cutting staff was not the way to go. Rather, he said, staff should be kept on hand to prepare projects for the future. And outsourcing the work to independent contractors “wastes taxpayer money.”
Taxpayers might wonder how Caltrans engineers performed on past projects, such as the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge. As we have noted, the span was $5 billion over budget, ten years late, and safety issues linger with faulty welds, corroded rods and such. In fact, UC Berkeley structural engineering professor Abolhassan Astaneh-Asi believes the structure is unsafe and declines to use it. Mark DeSaulnier, now a congressman, held hearings on the safety issues and ignored calls for a criminal investigation. “It’s frustrating,” he said, “that there’s never been anyone in the management of the bridge who has been held accountable.” But they all get paid, whether they perform poorly or sit around doing nothing. So assemblywoman Olsen’s efforts aside, a ballpark figure for the number of engineers Caltrans is likely to cut is zero. That amounts to zero in savings for the Golden State’s embattled taxpayers.
Meanwhile, Caltrans engineers are not the only ones getting paid to do nothing. It now emerges that in 2014, a year after he stepped down, the University of California paid former president Mark Yudof $546,000.