State’s view on Caltrans overage a familiar story
March 9, 2013
Not even a full month following the Nevada County Transportation Commission's decision to deny Caltrans an additional $420,000 to finish a highway project on which the state agency had once again blown its budget, another state agency has overruled.
In denying the request to meet halfway on an $840,000 overage in the $30 million La Barr Meadows/Highway 49 project, NCTC members in February pointed to Caltrans' track record of overages — a 2011 report by the state auditor found Caltrans ran through its budget for support costs on at least 476 projects completed since 2007 at a cost of $305 million — as well as the late notice of the overage as reasons not to hand over another $420,000 that could be used on future Nevada County transportation projects.
"The mistake we made was not tracking our costs more accurately as we did and not bringing the projections to you sooner," Tom Brannon, a Caltrans deputy district director, told the NCTC.
"As transportation partners, we let you down by not providing information in a timely fashion," Brannon said. "I sincerely apologize about that. That is my problem, and I own it."
Apparently, however, Caltrans won't own the actual cost of the mistake.
Instead, Nevada County will, after the California Transportation Commission decided Tuesday to overrule the NCTC. Such disregard for a decision made on the local level of government reeks of arrogance, suggesting county officials should trust that the state knows best.
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In fact, recent history offers ample reason for a lack of trust in the performance of state agencies.
With the threatened shutdown of its beloved South Yuba River State Park, the western Nevada County community banded together to object to the park's closure and find alternative funding sources for its operation, as the California Department of Parks and Recreation sought to bridge a supposed $22 million shortfall due to state budget cuts by closing 70 parks statewide. A town hall meeting took place. Community members rallied. Students hand-delivered hundreds of letters in opposition to state officials. Even a $5 parking fee was imposed to curtail the crisis.
And yet, all the while, the state parks department was sitting on at least $20 million it had stashed away for a rainy day. More telling were the reports by the state auditor that showed the 70 state parks selected for closure were chosen by officials without any actual knowledge of the cost to staff and maintain them.
In February, we learned the California Department of Forestry and Fire protection reportedly had concealed $3.66 million that should have gone into the general fund. Gov. Jerry Brown responded to the news by telling the Sacramento Bee, "I find it a relatively boring story, to tell you the truth."
"I always like stories that say we've got more money than I thought we had," Brown told the Bee, adding he will "certainly look into it. …We're not going to not take it seriously," Brown continued. "If there's a few million bucks laying around and somebody didn't put in the right account, we'll figure it out."
Rest assured that California residents, especially senior citizens living on tight budgets, who have been ordered to pay the $150 State Responsibility Area fire prevention fee don't consider the concealment of "a few million bucks" by the same organization seeking additional funding such a "boring story."
And earlier this week, the Sac Bee called Caltrans back onto the carpet with an investigation that concluded four state engineers had misrepresented or ignored data or other "consequential" information on four freeway structures, including the Benicia-Martinez bridge. The Bee reported that two of the engineers still work for Caltrans, which conducts tests to help verify the safety and stability of bridges, retaining walls and other freeway structures. Instead of providing any officials to answer questions concerning the investigation, the Bee reported Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty simply said that "Going forward, Caltrans has changed its rules and practices to ensure the integrity of the department's work into the future."
If that statement sounds familiar, it's likely because it was essentially the same offered by the Caltrans in addressing the overrun on La Barr Meadows/Highway 49 project.
NCTC Executive Director Dan Landon said District 3 Caltrans Director Jody Jones informed the CTC at its March 5 meeting that Caltrans has reportedly changed its internal reporting process and is committed to communicating with stakeholders on a timely basis in the future. Jones also reportedly said Caltrans is providing training to staff to prevent this type of situation from occurring again.
But the track record suggests otherwise.
And it's time Caltrans takes responsibility, actually owning cost of the mistake, rather than promising to do better.
"I think everyone needs to be accountable," said Jason Fouyer, a Grass Valley city councilman and NCTC member. "We are rewarding Caltrans for their lack of accountability. We are paying them for errors they made."
We agree. And it's a shame that such oversight, applied locally due to its lacking on the state level, is so easily dismissed and disregarded.