7-Step Fix for 'Mismanaged' Caltrans

California has chosen costly high-speed rail over road repairs
Monday, August 15, 2016

Also published at The Orange County Business Journal (pg. 55, Editorial)

By  Sen. John Moorlach, State Senator,  37th District

California has chosen costly high-speed rail over road repairs.

It has chosen to pay $500 million per year for unnecessary Caltrans staffing over making Caltrans the best department of transportation in the nation.

There’s no question that Caltrans is bloated and mismanaged and is not held accountable. 

But what to do with a mismanaged Caltrans? 

Especially before the state of California dares to ask you for another gas tax increase, more car taxes, and/or higher vehicle license fees from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

First, we ask Gov. Jerry Brown to better manage the staffing of Caltrans. In May 2014, the Legislative Analyst’s Office determined that Caltrans had 3,500 too many architects and engineers at a cost of $500 million per year.

Instead of employing unneeded staffers, these funds should go directly to our roads.

As it is, only 20 cents out of every transportation tax dollar that you pay actually hits the pavement.

Second, we ask the governor to reduce the size of Caltrans even more by outsourcing services. An average state transportation agency outsources 50% of its architects and engineers. Arizona and Florida outsource more than 80%. Caltrans outsources only 10%.

If the governor is concerned about economic cycles, then let’s address it by being nimble during downturns. It is easier to terminate or postpone contracts than it is to lay off a portion of the state’s work force. Fortunately, 54% of the staff at Caltrans are at or near retirement age, so a hiring freeze would be a great strategy to implement, and reductions could be easily achieved through attrition.

Third, we ask the last 38 counties to self-fund their road repairs. Currently, 20 counties are taxing themselves to improve transit and highway systems. Why should those 20 counties be asked to incur yet more tax hikes to assist those counties that did not make roads a priority? Since the voters in those 20 counties voted themselves a tax increase to fix their roads, those in the other counties should follow suit. In Orange County, this strategy has made a stark impact on freeways and roads. Take Interstate 5 north sometime, and you will know when you’ve hit the Los Angeles County line.

Fourth, we ask the governor and his secretary of transportation to reorganize the Caltrans management structure. Its district decision-making model is shameful and tone deaf. Believe me, I observed it firsthand as an Orange County supervisor. Orange County residents were ready to pay $1.3 billion to modify 17 freeway overpasses for an Interstate 405 expansion, allowing for the addition of four lanes on a very congested segment of thoroughfare.

Unfortunately, Caltrans insisted on building toll roads on those potential new lanes. They announced this long before related improvements, such as the West County Connector Project from Interstate 405 to Interstate 605, were completed. Now, long before the groundbreaking to add the four lanes with self-help tax dollars, Caltrans has infuriated and frustrated the residents of Orange County with an insistence of more taxes on top of voluntary taxes.

Fifth, ask the governor to delegate some transportation construction to the counties. If a county’s department of transportation can manage road repairs more efficiently, then cut out Caltrans and direct those funds to that county’s department. The net result will be that more money will be available for roads. Why hasn’t this been done already? Because the public employee unions fear the potential resulting layoffs.

Sixth, ask the governor to notch up his rainy-day fund concept by requiring that reserves be set aside every year in anticipation of future road maintenance and replacement. Road repairs should not be a shock to our department of transportation. So why hasn’t it taken the common-sense approach of setting funds aside? Could it be that staff salary increases and pension plan contributions have taken a higher priority?

Over the past 14 years, while gas taxes were rising, transportation spending has remained virtually flat. This means that the state has redirected transportation tax revenues. The governor should redirect them back toward current and future infrastructure costs.

The seventh and final request: Ask the governor to cease and desist on building high-speed rail. By the time this $80 billion-plus boondoggle is completed, the ticket prices will be so high that flying will still be significantly cheaper. How can the taxpayers be badgered into paying more for road repairs when California is wasting billions on a project that less than 2% of the population will ever use? This misconnect has to stop. 

California’s leadership should be sincere in its pursuit of better roads. 

Fix Caltrans. 

Taxpayers should expect no less.