SACRAMENTO — Hoping to speed construction of new highways in California's traffic-choked metropolitan areas, Gov. George Deukmejian announced Thursday that he has signed legislation giving Caltrans broad powers to hire private firms to plan and design freeway projects.
The bill, by Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) was strongly supported by Orange County builders who want new freeways built and older ones widened in areas where voters angered by clogged roads are demanding constraints on growth.
"There is no question that this is the most important legislation that was needed for Caltrans to get things done," said Bruce Nestande, a former state assemblyman and county supervisor who is now vice president of Arnel Development Co. of Costa Mesa.
"This is going to change dramatically the method in which transportation work gets done in this state."
Keith McKean, director of the Caltrans office in Orange County, said the new law would help the department with the widening of Interstate 5 from the Costa Mesa Freeway to the Garden Grove Freeway.
"We have a monumental amount of work to do in Orange County on a very short-term basis," McKean said. "We just don't have the work force to keep this (widening project) going and do all the other work we have to do too."
Under current law, most freeways are built by private construction companies but are designed by engineers who are civil servants on the state payroll. Although existing law provides a way for Caltrans to contract with private engineers, a cumbersome bureaucratic process and opposition from public-employee unions has forced Caltrans to rely mainly on its own staff.
Officials said it has taken as long as a year to gain state approval for some private contracts.
As a result, the department has been unable to respond quickly when money becomes available for new freeway projects, especially when money is provided by local increases in sales taxes or by road-building fees levied against developers.
The department is reluctant to hire permanent employees who might have to be laid off after such temporary bursts in the highway construction workload.
When the bill Deukmejian signed Thursday becomes law on Jan. 1, 1989, it will allow Caltrans to contract with private engineers, architects, designers, planners and surveyors whenever the department decides it lacks the staff to meet its freeway construction schedule.
Caltrans spokesman Gene Berthelson said the department expects to hire at least 700 engineers and others on contract during the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. He said the department will have about 400 such workers under contract during the current fiscal year.
The Orange County Caltrans office, which this year will have about 30 consulting engineers, will hire up to 50 next year.
"The difference is that this will accelerate by several months the time it takes to engage those contractors," Berthelson said. "That's a large portion of the time involved in developing plans for new highways."
Government-employee unions unsuccessfully opposed Bergeson's bill but did win amendments to ensure that contracting for private engineers will not bump civil servants off the state payroll.
The bill, for example, prohibits the displacement of any full-time or part-time Caltrans employee by a contract worker. It also requires Caltrans to hire one regular employee for every private engineer it retains as a consultant.
Also, the measure permits Caltrans to go to the private sector only after trying first to get the work done with local government employees.
Richard Baker, executive assistant for the 5,000-member Professional Engineers in California Government, said his union believes that the state could get the work done more quickly and cheaply by hiring civil servants rather than contracting with the private sector.
He said layoffs would not have been necessary even if the workload decreased because hundreds of Caltrans engineers are nearing retirement age.
"We believe the public has been sold a bill of goods by Caltrans," Baker said.
Baker said the union, which has already sued the state in a bid to stop the contracting already under way, may challenge the new law in court.