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June 5, 2013
Editorial: Will review of Caltrans truly be independent?

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(June 5 -- By the Editorial Board)

As the troubled San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge project nears completion - some $5 billion over budget and a decade late - Gov. Jerry Brown has belatedly ordered an independent external review of operations within the state Department of Transportation.

The State Smart Transportation Initiative, a 19-state sponsored transportation research center housed at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has been hired to conduct the review. SSTI will assess performance measures, communications, the current status of program documents, manuals and policy objectives, and Caltrans' ability to meet the state's mobility, safety and sustainability objectives, among other things.

As outlined in a press release, the review looks comprehensive. But the governor proposes to spend just $270,000 for it. That's not nearly enough for an in-depth examination of a troubled state government enterprise with more than 21,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $12 billion.

Brian Kelly, acting secretary of business, transportation and housing, who along with the governor ordered the review and will oversee it, says that an academic institution was selected precisely because it can do the work more cost-effectively than a private firm. Also SSTI has people on its staff who have run large state transportation departments and therefore appear to have the relevant experience.

While the press release promises SSTI will conduct an "independent external review," the constraints on the researchers - as outlined in the actual contract - call into question just how independent their review will be. For example, the contract requires SSTI "to meet biweekly either in person or by telephone" with officials at the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency and the Caltrans project manager. Briefings will include but are not limited to "meetings" and "interviews" contractors conduct with BT&H, Caltrans and other key stakeholders.

Such tight oversight could have a chilling effect. Knowing that their conversations will be reported back to top Caltrans officials, how candid will department employees or private contractors be? Kelly says the provision is not intended to stifle criticism but to ensure "due diligence" that the work promised is being performed. He says he has no interest in "knowing who said what about whatever."

The contract also bars SSTI from issuing "any news releases or public relations item of any nature whatsoever regarding work performed or to be performed under this Agreement without prior review of the contents" by Business, Transportation and Housing and with Caltrans' written permission.

The tight news blackout is worrisomely reminiscent of Caltrans' obfuscation of the many construction mishaps surrounding its massive Bay Bridge construction project.

SSTI review is not intended to be an examination of that project. Nonetheless, the bridge project's many lapses and huge cost overruns as chronicled by The Bee's Charles Piller have demonstrated that the bridge isn't a one-off problem. It's indicative of deep administrative and cultural dysfunctions within this important state agency.

A longtime staffer with the Legislature before joining the administration, Kelly says he has been frustrated himself by ineffective communications from Caltrans. At the end of the day, he promises the SSTI review "will be very public."

An in-depth review of Caltrans management is long overdue. If Kelly can deliver what he promises, the public will be well served.

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