SACRAMENTO — Gov. George Deukmejian on Saturday appointed attorney Robert K. Best of Davis, Calif., to direct the vast Department of Transportation, the state's road building agency that has drawn increasing criticism for its alleged failure to aggressively construct more highways.
Best, 48, served as a deputy director and chief deputy director of the department in the 1970s during Ronald Reagan's second term as governor. For the last 12 years, he has been a top official of the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, a Sacramento public interest law firm.
Best, whose appointment to the $85,400-a-year post of director is subject to confirmation by the Senate, succeeds Leo Trombatore, an up-from-the-ranks engineer who retired last year.
Ambitious Program Promised
Deukmejian, who as a candidate for governor in 1982 blistered the "alternative transportation" programs of his predecessor, Edmund G. Brown Jr., promised that if elected he would lead an ambitious highway construction program.
But increasingly, critics both in and out of the Legislature contend that Deukmejian has failed to follow through and that needed construction has been delayed at a time when more and more vehicles are crowding already over-saturated roadways, spawning escalating congestion and gridlock.
Administration officials counter that it has taken years merely to try to rehabilitate a highway system that the Brown Administration allowed to deteriorate through neglect as it pursued a policy of encouraging development of alternatives to the automobile, such as rapid transit and various forms of rail transportation.
To provide extra capital for highway construction, Deukmejian has proposed a $1-billion bond issue for the ballot this year and a second $1.3-billion bond proposal in 1990. About 25% of the funds would be earmarked for local streets and roads.
Even so, some Administration transportation officials have conceded that they are involved in a holding action against huge problems. They say it takes an enormous effort merely to stay even and prevent the situation from getting worse.
Deukmejian announced Best's appointment in his regular weekly broadcast speech and noted that the job of directing the sprawling Department of Transportation "is one of the most demanding in state government."
But the governor expressed confidence that Best will "meet this challenge and that he will provide strong leadership to enable us to move forward with our transportation improvement plan." Best was reported by family members to be officiating at a soccer tournament and unavailable to discuss his appointment.
Clearly sensitive to criticism of the department, Deukmejian outlined actions taken to improve the agency's performance, noting that it can take "upwards of five years from start to finish" to construct a new highway project.
'Step Up Our Commitment'
Among other things, the governor said the department is spending more than $70 million for computer automation to hasten project development. He said he has asked the Legislature for another 1,200 engineers and other employees "to step up our commitment to new highway development."
He said he will sign, as expected, a recently passed bill that will enable Best to contract with private engineers, architects, surveyors and others when there are not enough department employees to handle a project. Deukmejian also noted that steps are being taken to "fast track" construction and to "streamline" regulations and laws that can delay projects.
"Getting stuck in traffic is a maddening experience," Deukmejian said. But more importantly, he said, California must improve its transportation network because it is "fundamental to our efforts to create jobs, remain competitive and build prosperity for our children and grandchildren."
"We are determined to build more roads and highways, and to make better use of the system we already have," the governor said. "Our new Caltrans director, Bob Best, is the best man to help us meet this bold challenge."