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On The Money: Cutting Out Caltrans

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GOP Lawmakers Seek to Pull Plug on Funding

By Mike Luery

There’s a move at the State Capitol to eliminate the California Department of Transportation, Caltrans, one of the biggest government agencies in the state.

Some Republican lawmakers today accused the giant agency of wasting taxpayer dollars – after seeing a CBS 13 investigation on a Caltrans junket in the desert. Watch

An On The Money story called “Paying for Paradise” documented the Caltrans spending spree in October 2009. Using undercover cameras, CBS 13 took viewers inside a Caltrans convention at a luxury resort in Palm Desert – a convention in which Caltrans shelled out more than $80,000 to send 52 employees to a transportation conference at a four star hotel that offered gondola rides on a manmade lagoon.

“Certainly that story was a tipping point,” said Senator Joel Anderson. The El Cajon Republican called the Caltrans convention, “another example of government waste.”

Anderson is calling for a defunding of Caltrans – an agency that he says is too fat, from a diet of taxpayer dollars.

“If you take their salaries,” Anderson told CBS 13, “total salaries paid and total benefits paid and divide it by the total number of employees, it’s in excess of $100 thousand per employee.”

Anderson says he has a dozen co-authors – all Republicans – who want to take nearly $13 billion from Caltrans and shift that money to local cities and counties for their highways, roads and bridges. Doing so they say, would save $2 billion a year.

“Caltrans has not been a good steward of this money,” Assemblyman Steve Knight. The Palmdale Republican added, “They have not done what they are supposed to be doing.”

The Republicans say they’re taking on Governor Brown’s challenge to realign state government by defunding an agency they believe to be inefficient.

Assemblywoman Shannon Grove (R) Bakersfield, told Capitol reporters, “They’re just not being good stewards with our money.”

Caltrans responded with this statement from Media Relations Manager Matt Rocco, regarding Senate Bill 851:

“Caltrans agrees with Senator Anderson that state government must be as efficient as possible and shares the same goal of looking for ways to save
taxpayer dollars. Caltrans is currently administering one of the largest
construction programs in history with more than $10 billion in projects underway. This is during a time when our staffing levels are the lowest they’ve been since 2004. In the past five years, Caltrans has delivered
1,388 of 1,391 highway improvement projects worth $14.3 billion on schedule.

Working in partnership with local agencies, we are continually looking at ways to improve how we do business. In fact, over the last few years, we have significantly reduced our fleet, travel and vehicle-related spending, mobile phones, and level of management positions, saving taxpayers millions of dollars, all while maintaining more than 50,000 highway lane-miles across the state. It should also be noted that Caltrans received national recognition for its emergency response to rebuild the MacArthur Maze interchange in 26 days following a catastrophic tanker explosion.

We extend an invitation to educate and clarify key points to Senator Anderson on the complexity of maintaining and operating one of the largest transportation networks in the world, as well as efficiency steps we have already taken over the last several years to ensure Caltrans is effectively using taxpayer dollars.”

A group of government engineers also responded to Anderson’s legislation today, calling it “a misguided bill to put local agencies in charge of the state highway system.”

The Professional Engineers in California Government, a group representing 13,000 state engineers issued this statement:

“Caltrans is and will continue to be responsible for ensuring the safety and integrity of the state highway system,” said PECG President and State Engineer Matt Hanson. “Caltrans delivered 304 of 306 projects scheduled for bid during the 2009-2010 fiscal year. And over the past five year, Caltrans has delivered 99.8 percent of projects on or ahead of schedule.”

By contrast, the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) reported last year that, local agencies obligated only 72 percent of their federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds while Caltrans obligated 100% of its funds.

“According to the Department of Finance, it costs twice as much to outsource engineering work at Caltrans. Specifically, in the most recent budget, the Department of Finance concludes that a state engineer (including salary, benefits, overhead and equipment) costs the taxpayer $113,000 a year while an outsourced private engineer costs an average of $226,000 annually,” said Hanson. “Local agencies outsource almost all of their engineering services through no-bid contracts.”

But Senator Anderson is not convinced.

“You know what, if we can get rid of Caltrans, I think that would be a good move,” Anderson said. “At the end of the day this is about building roads and infrastructure at the best possible value.”

If you see example of government waste, send us an e-mail to onthemoney@kovr.com. You can also follow On The Money stories in progress via Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/mikeluery

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