Caltrans Needs to Get Back on Road to Respect

Shirley Grindle is a longtime county activist who writes from Orange

Public works projects made California a world leader in road design, construction and operation in the heyday of the 1950s and '60s, when so many of California's freeways and major highways were constructed. But since the Legislature combined the Public Works highway and bridge divisions to create the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, in 1972, enormous amounts of money have been spent, and California's once-shining reputation for road building is in a state of disrepute. Caltrans is now part of the state's Business, Transportation and Housing Agency. Caltrans employs more than 22,000 people and has an annual budget exceeding $10 billion.

In Southern California alone there are plenty of examples of engineering and construction goofs on the part of Caltrans, such as:

* The Century Freeway: This was completed in October 1993, and since then Caltrans has spent more than $30 million trying to draw down the high water table that threatens the stability of the freeway. A Times investigation revealed that Caltrans engineers had ignored evidence discovered in the initial design stages, evidence that showed that there was a high water table.

* The Eastern Transportation Corridor: Caltrans was responsible for the design and construction of this toll road. After it was opened to traffic, an abnormal number of rainy-weather accidents prompted an investigation that found Caltrans had allowed the use of a nonstandard asphalt mixture that made the road surface slick. This careless oversight by Caltrans cost the taxpayers another bundle of money to resurface the road.

* Defective welds on the Santa Ana Freeway: Defective welds on reinforcement steel were discovered on the newly constructed freeway bridges. The columns supporting the overpass had to be jackhammered apart. Again the taxpayers paid for substandard work overseen by Caltrans.

* Slope failure on the connector between the Costa Mesa and Riverside freeways: During the construction of the Costa Mesa Freeway many years ago, Caltrans created a large, man-made slope on Santiago Canyon Road in north Orange, where the Costa Mesa and Riverside freeways meet. Several years later this slope began to fail, damaging homes at the top of the slope.

Caltrans sent their crews in, and after several months of moving the dirt around, they declared the problem solved. Later, the slope failed again and Caltrans again just moved the dirt around. Finally, in 1996, when the slope failed for the third time and homeowners lost their homes, Caltrans finally decided to use modern slope repair methods not used in the previous attempts to repair this slope. This time it bench filled the slope, installed retaining walls, and provided drains to divert the water across the face of the slope--all of which are standard requirements on private projects. Another example of incompetent performance at taxpayer expense.

* Widening of the Costa Mesa Freeway: The project required replacement of certain bridges over the freeway. The LaVeta Street bridge was out of use for 14 months. After removing the Meats Street bridge in June 1999, construction did not get underway until July 2000. The Collins Street bridge was demolished in early May, and the reconstruction has just now begun. Meanwhile, local traffic is diverted through the neighborhood residential streets, and businesses in the immediate area have lost customers because of the diverted traffic. Caltrans bears the burden of extremely poor planning that doubles the time for bridge construction and inconveniences entire neighborhoods and local businesses.

* Carpool lanes: After more than 10 years of operating hundreds of miles of carpool lanes, the number of people sharing rides has been found to be on the decline. California drivers will simply not give up their independence and personal freedom by ride-sharing. Even in the face of this evidence, Caltrans is promoting the construction of more carpool lanes on the Garden Grove Freeway--at a cost of millions to the taxpayers. This unworkable solution to congestion of our freeways appears to be just another construction project to keep Caltrans employees busy.

There are two solutions to Caltrans' internal problems. First, it should enter into public-private partnerships on public works projects because it has demonstrated repeatedly that it simply can't handle the quantity of work, nor achieve the quality required. Second, and probably the most difficult for any agency to accomplish, is to break up the massive agency into a more workable and efficient organization.

Proposition 35 on the November ballot would accomplish the first solution partially in that it enables Caltrans to use private sector architects and engineers to help with public works projects, including waste-water systems, schools and water and transportation projects.

Restructuring Caltrans, however, is probably just wishful thinking because rarely has any arm of government self-imposed its own downsizing. This will be up to the Legislature. We all know what that entails--more lobbying and more campaign funds will be spent to protect the status quo.

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