Embracing critical review, Caltrans details modernizing agency

150 150 Justin Ewers

(photo credit: Matthew Grant Anson)

Calling the California Department of Transportation “out of date” and “out of step” with other states, a highly critical external review of the agency released at the end of January dinged Caltrans for the way it manages (or mismanages) just about everything it does, from operating the state’s more than 50,000 lane-miles of highways and fast-expanding rail services to, well, those troublesome bolts (and now leaks) on the San Francisco Bay Bridge.

Most coverage of the review—which found Caltrans lacks a coherent mission and is overly focused on “building projects” rather than adopting a broader approach to sustainable land-use—missed something important, however. The report’s authors, a group of transportation experts from the University of Wisconsin’s State Smart Transportation Initiative, certainly found Caltrans struggling with the same problem facing many other decades-old public agencies: how to adapt to changing times and new goals, from supporting mass transit to addressing climate change. (Some less charitable observers said the study showed Caltrans, once “the best highway construction agency in the world…no longer knows what is supposed to do.”)

But the report also goes out of its way to celebrate the agency’s leadership for supporting the study, embracing its findings, and dedicating themselves to improving the performance of their $12.6 billion department and its nearly 20,000 employees. “Within Caltrans itself there is great interest in [a] different mission,” as the review puts it. “The staff’s openness to discussing these problems and possible solutions provide real hope that the department can embrace needed reforms.”

While Caltrans critics are sure to pile on Tuesday during a Senate Transportation Committing hearing on the report, the truth is, the department’s leaders are already taking many of the steps identified in the review. In the last two weeks, Caltrans has unveiled its first-ever department-wide performance review, which found the agency has met only four of its 15 performance goals this quarter, while “making progress” on nine others. A few days before the internal review came out, the department also issued its own internal program assessment—a collection of smart proposals for reforming Caltrans that, if implemented wisely, could align closely with Economic Summit’s own recommendations for revitalizing California’s aging transportation system.

So, what’s the matter with Caltrans?

Most of the review’s criticism of Caltrans revolves around a single, provocative issue: The department was created in the 1970s to make it easier for cars to get around the state—taking over that role from the agency famous for building California’s interstate highway system in the postwar years—but as an organization, it has struggled to adjust to today’s more complex set of objectives.

While the state’s goals have shifted as decades have gone by—with the population nearly doubling, pollution and climate change becoming major issues, and a chorus growing for Californians to become less reliant on cars—Caltrans is still focused on “moving cars faster.” As the review puts it: “Caltrans today is significantly out of step with best practice in the transportation field and with the state of California’s policy expectations. It is in need of modernization—both in the way it sees its job and how it approaches that job—and of a culture change that will foster needed adaptation and innovation.”

Caltrans leaders, by and large, agree with these findings—and are determined to do something about them. “We asked for an honest assessment because we are committed to modernizing Caltrans and improving transportation for all Californians,” Brian Kelly, secretary of the California Transportation Agency, which oversees Caltrans, said last week. “This report describes significant challenges that built up for decades at Caltrans, and we are committed to facing those challenges proactively and taking action to deliver a modern transportation system that Californians deserve.”

The real challenge: Making these reforms a reality

The big question, of course, is what those reforms should look like—and how to make sure they work. According to the review, Caltrans has confronted this challenge several times over the last twenty years without much success—starting with a 1994 report that identified many of the same issues (a bureaucratic culture that made employees “rule-driven” rather than “product-driven”) and ending with the launch of a major new strategy, Smart Mobility 2010, that aimed to modernize the department’s goals.

These efforts, the report finds, have not had the desired result. “Many senior managers we talked to could barely recall the existence of [even the most recent] ‘call to action,’” the reviewers write, pointing out that of 100 Caltrans managers interviewed in one recent survey, only two were familiar with the Smart Mobility guide.

So how to make culture change stick at Caltrans? A closer look at the proposed solutions in the external review and a list of reforms identified in Caltrans’ own recently-released program assessment shows most experts not only agree on what the problem is—they have proposed many of the same solutions, too. “Many of the department’s program review initiatives overlap with or complement our own recommendations,” the review acknowledges.

Some of these proposals also align closely with ideas developed through the Economic Summit—from focusing the transportation system on a more clearly-defined mission and ensuring the state has adequate resources to achieve these goals to supporting efforts to implement nuts-and-bolts reforms, including recent updates to CEQA that promise to take some of the complexity out of land-use planning.

Next week’s Senate committee hearing will give Transportation Agency officials a chance to outline their plans in more detail—and to defend their own lackluster performance in some areas. (The cover of the official Caltrans program assessment features a large photo of the Bay Bridge.)

In the meantime, here are a few of the most promising Caltrans initiatives identified in both the agency’s internal and external reviews:

  • Addressing climate change: In February 2013, Caltrans created a guide to help local transportation planning agencies incorporate climate change impact considerations into long-term planning. This is a first step toward a broader state role in supporting environmentally sustainable transportation at the local level.
  • Performance-based budgeting: Caltrans was one of the first departments selected to undergo a bottom-up review as a result of the governor’s 2011 executive order on performance-based budgeting. The department is in the second of a four-year “zero-base” budget review, where the state’s Department of Finance is looking at all of the activities performed by the department and identifying areas where best practices can be implemented to increase efficiency.
  • Risk management: To address what Caltrans calls a department-wide “aversion to risk” that slows projects and costs taxpayer dollars, Caltrans is creating an Office of Enterprise Risk Management. The group is not yet assessing risk using the same successful model used in other states—which has dramatically streamlined the cost and delivery time of public works projects—but it is beginning to help the department manage the risks involved in its procurement and project delivery.
  • Aligning roles with “self-help” counties: To better coordinate its activities with the 20 county transportation agencies that have passed local taxes to support transportation infrastructure, Caltrans has created a joint task force to implement changes in project delivery, design, and right-of-way issues.
  • Streamlining project delivery: Acknowledging that its oversight is cumbersome and inconsistent, Caltrans is implementing a Quality Management System to establish performance-based outcome quality measures, while also delegating more authority to local districts to ensure projects are built more quickly. After a pilot project to test the “design-build” approach to delivering projects—a popular idea among private and public contractors alike—Caltrans now has the authority to use design-build authority throughout the State Highway System.

Justin Ewers

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