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Taking a whip to Caltrans in governor’s race

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POSTED April 14, 2018 1:12 a.m.

John Cox wants to be governor.
He believes California can do a better job spending money. The horse he’s whipping to gain support in the upcoming June 5 primary is Caltrans.
His radio ad calls Caltrans a “bloated bureaucracy.” He cites research showing it costs California 2.5 times the national average to build a mile of highway.
Not giving perspective to Sacramento spending is just as bad as Sacramento deliberately low-balling and overselling money pits such as high speed rail and the Twin Tunnels.
California, in a way, is a victim of circumstance. We are not Iowa, flat and predictable. We are not Texas where the highest peak is 5,400 feet lower. We are not Ohio where earthquakes are rare. We are not Florida with flat coastlines.
Caltrans has to build highways and freeways over and through massive mountain ranges. Highway lanes are built across desert and along treacherous, twisty routes a thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean. Bridges have to withstand routine shaking. California had 119 earthquakes in the past seven days and has on average three a year 5.5 or higher on the Richter scale that can damage structures.
There are almost 40 million residents in California and 14.8 million registered vehicles.  Oklahoma has 3.9 million residents and 1.4 million registered vehicles. Which state do you think incurs greater construction costs per mile related to detours and extended timetables due to the need to still move traffic?
Given work on the interstate system involves federal dollars and prevailing wages must be paid, where is the labor cost to build a highway mile more expensive — California or Alabama?
Caltrans did not come up with the California Environmental Quality Act but they must comply with the law. Yes, part of that “bloat” Cox references pushes around paper connected with CEQA’s implementation. Not passing judgment one way or another on the CEQA process and its tendency to overkill, but the hoops that Catrans jumps through along with private sector developers and cities are time consuming, costly, and tend to make projects significantly more expensive. Caltrans is not immune from “price bloat” from state regulations that hammers private sector builders as well.
The median home price in Mississippi is $120,300. It’s almost 4.5 times higher in California at $535,000. While Caltrans doesn’t always need to buy homes to make way for highway lanes they do need to buy property.  The difference between home prices in California and other states is also reflected proportionately in the price of farmland and even vacant land.
Taking aim at Caltrans helps trigger biases people have about state workers.
The decades old jokes about what is bigger than a bread box, is painted orange and seats six being a Caltrans crew cab pickup still resonates with misconceptions people have today about the agency that builds and maintains highways.
People see a lane of traffic blocked off with a Caltrans worker seemingly just standing around and their blood pressure goes up. Or maybe it’s seeing a Caltrans worker in a truck with a warning sign on top “parked” ahead of a freeway sweeping crew.
More often or not the Caltrans workers referenced are looking out for the safety of the motoring public as well as fellow Caltrans workers.
Cox is trying hard to ride the campaign to repeal the 12 cent gas tax increase as his ticket to the governorship.
That’s fine although supporters he may have among elected representatives at the city and county levels that believe the gas tax hike is a repugnant overreach on Sacramento’s part should consider any gas tax flowing to their coffers as the result of the gas tax  hike as taxpayer blood money and send it back to Sacramento. We know that isn’t going to happen because local constituents are screaming about road conditions while at the same time threatening to send local elected leaders that suggest raising local taxes to pay for such road work into the political wilderness.
The only way to get rid of the so-called “Caltrans bureaucracy bloat” is to repeal and reform the environmental review process and passing a law requiring the state not to require contractors that win highway construction bids pay their workers prevailing wages.
Cox implies there is a lot of fat to cut at Caltrans. Go ahead, cut away at headquarters staff. Then wait and see how long it takes for highway projects to advance and how much the time delay adds to the per mile cost.
Let’s be honest. Until Gov. Jerry Brown 1.0 appointed anti-car advocate Adriana Gianturco as head of Caltrans, the agency was relatively devoid of politics. Before then, the agency functioned on its 1960s era mode when the freeway system of the Golden State became the envy of the world. She waged a covert war inside Caltrans by delaying projects that she believed were growth inducing. It was to the point she overrode engineering staff recommendations on the safest — and most efficient way to move traffic — on some highway projects and implanted designed that were crippling in more ways than one once the asphalt cured.
Brown 2.0 — after a stint as mayor of Oakland — saw government from the viewpoint of the folks who have to make sure the garbage is collected, water is running  and toilets flush.
The bottom line is California needs serious thought given to making the highway building process more efficient to keep costs in line. What it doesn’t need is flamethrower rhetoric.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209.249.3519.

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