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In the latest public criticism of California's Public Utilities Commission, a state audit faults the agency's transportation branch for lax oversight and failing to regularly collect penalties.

The PUC's transportation enforcement arm regulates drivers like limousine operators, airport shuttles, coach buses and more recently so-called "transportation network companies" like Uber and Lyft (taxi cabs are not in its purview). That responsibility includes ensuring transportation companies have the proper permits and launching investigations in response to public complaints about wayward operators.

According to the state audit, the PUC has fallen short. The official analysis found that the agency lacks a robust system for dealing with claims of violations and responds slowly when it does act, taking an average of 238 days to complete investigations.

"The branch has not carefully defined its complaint-receipt process and does not ensure that it resolves complaints about passenger carriers in a timely or complete manner," the audit says. "The branch's inadequate investigation efforts stem from a lack of written guidance for staff to follow when receiving or investigating complaints."

Lenient penalties also recur when the PUC does go after bad actors, the audit found. The agency did not always hit violators with financial penalties, and when it did the amount fell short of the maximum allowable by law. That fits a pattern of uneven enforcement, the report charges.

"Not collecting monetary penalties has been a longstanding problem for the commission," according to the audit.

Despite the Legislature authorizing five new airport enforcement officers, the audit found, the PUC failed to bolster its airport enforcement. One of the five positions was transferred to rail enforcement, and the other four were converted to general enforcement.

The audit also depicts turmoil within the commission's transportation safety offices, suggesting that some dysfunction stems from a failure to retain experienced staff. As a result, the audit charges, leadership suffered.

"Because of high turnover and loss of institutional knowledge, branch management has not set goals or developed enforcement measures that would enable the branch to achieve long-term objectives related to public safety throughout California," the audit states.

PHOTO: A limousine driver waits for clients who are dining out in downtown Murphys before they head to Ironstone Vineyards for an evening concert on June 18, 2010. The Sacramento Bee/Andy Alfaro.



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