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Gov. Taps Ex-Lobbyist to Fill Long-Vacant Caltrans Post

Times Staff Writers

After a nine-month search, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has appointed a former lobbyist and head of a Bay Area transportation agency as chief of the state Department of Transportation.

Will Kempton, a 57-year-old Democrat, is expected to be easily confirmed by the state Senate. On Thursday, he began moving into Caltrans’ Sacramento office for his first day of work.

The $9.2-billion agency oversees planning, construction and maintenance of the state’s 15,234-mile highway system. It had been without a permanent director since Jeff Morales, an appointee of Gray Davis, stepped down last spring.

Kempton arrives as Caltrans faces severe shortfalls in project funding, sagging employee morale and deteriorating highways that were once among the best in the nation.

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In the last three years, the state’s transportation programs lost more than $5 billion, in part due to the state budget crisis. Other than maintenance and safety-related work, the state has suspended funding for new projects.

California now has the worst urban highways in the country, according to a report this year by The Road Information Program, a group in Washington, D.C.

More than half of the freeways and major streets in the Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco and San Diego regions are in poor condition, the report found.

Caltrans had a hiring freeze until recently and barely avoided layoffs earlier this year. In the last few years, it has lost a number of managers and engineers to higher-paying jobs.

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“Morale in the department is not very good,” said Bruce Blanning, a spokesman for Professional Engineers in California Government, which represents 7,000 Caltrans workers. “Maybe because there hasn’t been a director, there hasn’t been any hiring to replace even attrition.”

Kempton was an assistant director for legislative and congressional affairs for Caltrans from 1980 to 1985. He then was executive director of the Santa Clara County Traffic Authority until 1992.

After that he was a partner at Smith, Kempton & Watts, a consulting and lobbying firm with a clientele of transit agencies and developers that included Newhall Ranch.

Last year, he became assistant city manager of Folsom, a Sacramento suburb and his home for many years, overseeing community services and parks.

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At Caltrans, Kempton will receive $123,255 annually and will oversee 22,000 employees. Part of his mandate will be improving efficiency.

“He has an outstanding reputation for cutting through red tape,” said state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), vice chairman of the Senate’s Transportation Committee. “He’s the reformer we’ve needed at Caltrans for many years.”

Allen Lawrence, a commissioner for the California Transportation Commission, said Kempton “understands all sides of California’s transportation issues.”

Caltrans spokesman David Anderson said that the new director declined to be interviewed because he “is still getting settled in.”

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