Caltrans must evolve with state’s transportation needs

Published 3:15 pm, Sunday, February 2, 2014 by the SF Gate

The California Department of Transportation got a major wake-up call this week from an external review of the department’s policies and procedures.

The report, which was written by the State Smart Transportation Initiative at the University of Wisconsin, described Caltrans as being “significantly out of step with best practice in the transportation field and with the state of California’s policy expectations.”

The report follows Gov. Jerry Brown‘s request in May 2013 for a top-to-bottom review of the agency, which is in charge of the state’s highway systems and the much-maligned Bay Bridge construction.

Not all of the issues identified in the report are the fault of Caltrans. Some of its problems stem from the state’s funding practices, which allow local governments to dictate the shape of what should be a statewide transportation system.

There has also been a lack of statewide thinking about how the role of Caltrans should shift as California moves away from heavy reliance on the automobile. Development patterns are rightly changing away from low-density exurbs that require lots of highways. Younger Californians are already driving less than their parents did. And as California confronts climate change, Caltrans has to be more than just a highway department. It will have to work with many different partners to focus on different systems of transportation.

But a highway department, rather than a transportation department, is exactly what Caltrans is right now, according to the report. The review calls for Caltrans to overhaul its mission and goals to align with the state’s changing demands. “Too many in the department understand the word (mobility) to mean “moving cars faster,” says the report, urging the department to focus more on the state’s interconnectivity and different systems of transportation for freight.

It also calls for Caltrans to redevelop the way that it does business. “Systemic and operational issues have not received enough attention,” the report reads.

That won’t be news to anyone who’s been following the endless Bay Bridge saga. The report didn’t specifically talk about the nightmarish cost overruns, delays, safety concerns and construction problems on the Bay Bridge, but it’s an obvious example of where and why the department needs to make improvements.

Changing things won’t be easy. The department will need to improve its managerial systems for staff and update “its dated, rigid design policies.” It will need to develop “sufficient communication skills and procedures,” a charge that once again brings the Bay Bridge, with its ill-considered exemption from the state’s open meetings law, to mind.

These are enormous, transformative changes, and they would be challenging for any agency or business. But Caltrans has left this work undone for too long. California’s needs and demands are evolving, and the state needs a transportation department that can evolve with it.

To read the full report click here.

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