By Eraina Ortega.

Passed and signed into law last year, SB 1 is starting to generate revenue which will reach more than $5 billion a year at full implementation. The revenue is allocated to state and local governments to fix and make safety improvements to highways and local streets and roads, repair or replace aging bridges, increase active modes of transportation, improve and expand transit, and reduce congestion. Accountability is one of the key components of SB 1. In fact, SB 1 created a new position of Inspector General at Caltrans. In this edition of the County Voice, we asked the first person to hold that title, Eraina Ortega, some questions about her job and the role she’ll play to make sure the revenue from SB 1 is spent appropriately.

Thank you for taking our questions. Keeping track of more than $5 billion a year is a huge job, how are you approaching it?

Ortega: My pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity to share some of what I’m working on. Let me start by saying I’m approaching the role with humility. In creating the Inspector General position, SB 1 sought to raise the level of accountability to the public for all transportation funds, but in particular to provide assurance that new funds generated by SB 1 are being efficiently used to deliver the projects and benefits promised. I take this responsibility to the public seriously.

Caltrans is a large and complex organization that has always had a professional audit staff. Reorganizing as an Independent Office of Audits and Investigations gives the Inspector General and staff the independence to seek input from outside of Caltrans management and to report findings and make any reasonable recommendations for positive change. This renewed commitment to independence and accountability has energized the office.

We have started a risk assessment to identify areas of focus for our 2018-19 audit plan and will soon publish an audit conducted to determine whether Caltrans has established an appropriate baseline against which to measure SB 1 success. In April I plan to convene a meeting with representatives of the Legislature, the California State Transportation Agency, California Transportation Commission, Federal Highway Administration, and others to provide feedback on the risk assessment and to assist in identifying emerging and significant risks to Caltrans’ success. We plan to publish a 2018-19 audit plan in late June.

How much oversight do you expect to have into individual projects at the state or local level?

Ortega: Auditing every project would not be an efficient use of audit resources, but there are still ways to improve oversight at the individual project level. For example, the SB 1 Accountability and Transparency Guidelines the California Transportation Commission will consider at its March meeting. The guidelines emphasize project accountability through written agreements that specify benefits, scope, cost, and schedule of projects. By auditing a sample of projects early we can look for trends and make recommendations to improve project delivery. Additionally, we’ll be looking at Caltrans’ policies and procedures at the statewide level and testing to see if there are appropriate controls in place to promote compliance.

How do you anticipate reporting back to the legislature and the public?

Ortega: SB 1 requires a report to the Legislature, Governor, and California Transportation Commission at least annually. I’m anticipating issuing an annual report in mid-November of each year that would cover activity from the prior fiscal year. Additionally, I plan to issue an interim report in June of 2018 to provide a progress report on the establishment of the Inspector General’s office and to report the status of SB 1-related audits and reviews underway.

It’s my view that transparency is a key component of a successful Inspector General. Final audit reports are already made available on the Caltrans website, but I know not everyone has the time to read entire audit reports. I’m exploring ways to summarize and identify key findings and recommendations and other accountability measures that would be useful and easy to access electronically for those interested.

Between SB 1’s language, the California Constitution, and oversight from your office, what are the specific guarantees taxpayers have that their taxes will pay only for transportation purposes?

Ortega: SB 1 established specific performance outcomes that Caltrans must meet by 2027, created an independent Inspector General, and expanded the California Transportation Commission’s oversight and accountability for the use of taxpayer funds. These legislative mandates and the proposed constitutional amendment which will be on the ballot in June (Prop 69) provide an extraordinary level of protection for transportation funds. Additionally, the shared interest and support for SB 1 from state, local, and regional transportation partners brings a level of attention to these funds that will encourage transparency in the allocation of funds and the delivery of projects. This is money that is needed at the city / county and state level – all the protections you referenced in your question are ways that we’re collectively making sure the money is going where taxpayers expect it to go.

What else should we know about you, your job, and the SB1 issue in general?

Ortega: In addition to auditors, the Inspector General’s office has a team of special investigators who review allegations of misconduct. Caltrans also has an Ethics Helpline where employees are able to report questionable ethical behavior via phone or online form. Management of the Ethics Helpline has recently moved to the Inspector General’s to assure callers of the independence of any investigation.

I believe the oversight and accountability measures we’ve discussed will lead to improved outcomes for SB 1 revenues and will enhance public trust in the efficient use of all transportation dollars.

Caltrans has also set up a website where the public can monitor progress on projects statewide, find out more information about the checks and balances in place to ensure proper spending and get answers to some of the biggest questions surrounding SB 1.  This is another layer of transparency that I think will help as projects continue to break ground.

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Originally posted at the California State Association of Counties.