In his proposed state budget Governor Jerry Brown called for shifting state revenue and state authority for a number of major programs from the state to local governments. Without a doubt transportation should be at the top of the list.
In transportation local governments already have experienced personnel, established organizational structures and a proven track record of delivering quality projects on time and on budget.
Specifically, over the past 27 plus years California’s nineteen Self-Help Counties (SHCs) have done an excellent job improving our state’s transportation system. Time and again these county authorities have gone to their local voters and told them that if they approve a local sales tax increase for a limited number of years, the county will deliver a specified list of local transportation projects within a specified time. The county authorities know that if they do not deliver on their promises, they will lose the trust of their local voters and will find it very difficult to pass future local sales tax measures.
The SHCs have no margin for error or insincerity. They have to achieve a two-thirds vote for a tax increase, and then they have to actually deliver the projects. Moreover, they have to deliver the projects in a state where-to say the least-the project approval process is not for the faint of heart. Yet over and over again the counties have delivered the goods. They have done it in large counties, in small counties, in liberal counties and in conservative counties.
By any measure the SHCs have established a truly an amazing record. Indeed, one shudders to think what our transportation system would be today without these cost-effective county programs.
Meanwhile what is the situation at the state level? After conducting a thorough study of Caltrans utilizing multiple independent measures, the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) concluded that conservatively Caltrans is overstaffed by 1500 personnel years (PYs).
That is no small potatoes. Adopting the LAO’s recommendation would free up $200 million per year for new projects-that equals $1 billion in new money for the five year State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) indefinitely. That $1 billion per cycle in new project money would create jobs, jobs, jobs-the very thing which is the highest priority for today’s voters.
Freeing up this $1 billion per cycle for transportation is particularly important, because other sources of state funding for transportation are rapidly diminishing. Prop 1B, the $19 billion bond fund passed in 2006, is running out. Federal ARRA money is winding up. Traditional federal transportation funding is diminishing. And between inflation and people shifting more and more to high mileage cars, the gas tax is losing its ability to generate revenue.
Caltrans is big-very big for an engineering organization. Here is an illustration of just how big Caltrans is: It has over 20,000 employees, over 9,000 of whom work in project delivery. In comparison, the nearly 1,000 engineering companies which are members of ACEC California in total also employ about 20,000 people. However, unlike Caltrans these 1,000 mostly small private engineering companies provide services to the entire private economy, nearly all local public agencies, most state agencies and federal agencies with projects in California. And these 1,000 firms and 20,000 private sector employees plan, design and inspect much more than transportation projects . They also deliver projects for water, energy, education, environmental improvement, housing, commercial complexes, industry, etc., etc.
Can anyone seriously doubt that Caltrans is overstaffed? Would not that money be much better spent on actual projects? Would two thirds of the voters approve a tax increase, if the voters were told the money was all going to Caltrans? Have not local governments shown us that there is indeed a better way to get the job done?
Governor Brown rightly points out that our state is facing a major crossroads, and that we need to make basic decisions. Will it be, for example, just business as usual for our system of delivering needed transportation projects? Or will the state make fundamental changes to streamline and speed up its system of project delivery-changes that are similar to what virtually all other states are now doing.
The state employees union at Caltrans (Professional Engineers in California Government or PECG) recently publicly released a letter (addressed to Senate Pro Tem Steinberg and Assembly Speaker Perez) essentially arguing for the former. ACEC California then sent a response letter (to see it click here) advocating the latter.
Yes our state is at a crossroads. Which path do you think will best serve our state?