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Few Bumps Found on Caltrans' Path

Agency generally gets good marks. But engineers say turning over projects to private sector is a mistake.

November 17, 2002|Phil Willon | Times Staff Writer

If construction defects discovered in a new carpool ramp linking the Costa Mesa and San Diego freeways turn into a major headache for Caltrans, it won't be the first in recent years.

The California Department of Transportation has been stung by a handful of construction problems and delays in Southern California, including design flaws in the Century Freeway that cost taxpayers an extra $60 million and faulty welds at the Orange Crush interchange, where the Santa Ana, Orange and Garden Grove freeways merge.

Critics contend that agency's oversight has faltered, in part because Caltrans has had difficulty filling key vacancies. However, even they acknowledge the agency has suffered relatively few mishaps among the hundreds of projects it handles annually.

In August, state auditors faulted Caltrans for a yearlong delay and $321,000 cost overrun on the Highway 33 improvement project in Ventura County, blaming the problems on the agency's failure to monitor the contractor and for using faulty designs.

However, auditors reviewed 20 other projects in Caltrans' $4-billion-a-year highway maintenance and construction program, and generally gave the agency good marks for staying within budget and avoiding unreasonable delays.

"The California Department of Transportation has the best transportation work force anywhere," Caltrans Director Jeff Morales said. "We are currently managing more than 650 construction projects worth $7 billion."

Morales said local and county transportation agencies often seek out Caltrans to manage their road and highway projects.

"While we won't be error-free, our work force is trained and qualified to address any issues or problems we face," he said.

Caltrans officials say their leadership should be judged on its current performance -- not on blunders that happened under previous administrations.

Even some of the agency's most vocal critics agree.

"In general, given the hundreds of projects Caltrans is managing across the state, the vast majority of them have been very successful," said Ted Toppin, spokesman for Professional Engineers in California Government, which represents Caltrans engineers.

However, Toppin and his organization have actively fought and criticized the agency's practice of contracting with private firms to manage, design and engineer some highway construction projects -- including the faulty carpool overpass between the Costa Mesa and San Diego freeways.

"When you turn over entire public works projects to the private sector, there is no one there looking out for the public's interest," Toppin said. "They're looking to get the job done quickly, cheaply and as simply as possible."

Problems with other highway projects in recent years have included:

* Design flaws in a 3.5-mile lowered section of the Century Freeway that was cracking and threatening to collapse because of rising ground water. Caltrans spent $60 million to fix the road linking Norwalk and Los Angeles International Airport.

* Defective welds on a bridge between Interstates 805 and 8 in San Diego County's Mission Valley area. In 1996, Caltrans ordered $44.3 million in earthquake retrofitting redone after tests showed problems in nearly 70% of the welds in the bridge's reinforced columns.

* Local politics, turf battles and legal scuffles have led to delays and an estimated $1.3 billion in cost overruns in repairs of earthquake damage to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

State Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said Caltrans has had serious management problems since former Gov. Jerry Brown took office in the early 1970s, when the agency started to give priority to public transportation and other alternatives over the state highway system.

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