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Caltrans 'tude: Don't blame us

September 05, 2007|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

You want to fight Caltrans? Good luck.

Just ask Celeste Malott, who has been wrangling with the nation's largest road building agency since last October over what she considered some negligent road work in Topanga.

The family's 2006 Mini Cooper sustained what she says was $1,750 in damage when it hit a 4-inch perpendicular cut in the pavement that took out two tires and two rims.

Caltrans was repaving Highway 27 near the entrance to her neighborhood. Malott contends the area was poorly marked -- and days after she complained about the damage to her car, crews installed blinking lights and an orange sign that depicted an uneven roadway.

That might be the only satisfaction she gets. After filing a claim, she received a letter from a Caltrans attorney who said her claim was unsubstantiated and that perhaps she should hire an attorney. She tried to call Caltrans, but kept running into recorded messages.

By March, Caltrans had washed its hands of any responsibility, saying its contractor, All American Asphalt, was in charge of the project. All American has insurance, so of course it became a straightforward matter. The insurance carrier denied the claim.

Malott contacted state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), but that hasn't solved the problem so far.

"Any suggestions?" Malott asked me. "I can't believe that I am the only one that suffered damage to car tires that weekend. I am very frustrated."

She added later, "Their strategy is to drag their feet and wear you down."

Caltrans officials did not have any comment on Malott's claim.

Perhaps it is not the agency's strategy so much as a way of life when you have more than 2,000 active lawsuits against you. Caltrans has 250 employees in its legal department and gets hit with a new lawsuit more than once a day. There are environmental lawsuits for not handling storm runoff, land dispute suits for the right of way for new highways and disputes brought by the handicapped.

Just this year, the agency had to begin dealing with the settlement of a suit brought by deaf and hard-of-hearing motorists, who alleged its roadside call boxes did not provide equal access under state and federal law.

After getting sued so often, the agency apparently decided to turn tables. In March, The Times disclosed that Caltrans had begun a practice of suing developers and cities for failing to build adequate highways to serve new residential developments. The agency said the suits are part of an effort to be "more strategic and smarter."

Then you have Malott's two tires and wheels. The fact is that motorists have every right to expect roads that are even enough not to damage their vehicles, though government agencies often dispute this right. When taxpayers refuse to provide the funding necessary for an adequate highway system, potholes, crumbling concrete and even collapsing bridges over the Mississippi River are only partly the fault of highway engineers.

As readers of Your Wheels may recall, I've also warned readers about low profile tires and alloy rims popular on most new vehicles. This flimsy combination provides little protection against road hazards, including the ones that Caltrans may throw your way.

In Malott's case, it appears her car was equipped with 17-inch rims and 205/45/17 tires. A 4-inch ridge or cut in the pavement is something a lot of stocky tires and beefy steel rims on older cars could take, even at a good rate of speed. But use a low profile tire on a delicate, lacy alloy rim and what you get is a $1,750 repair bill. But that doesn't excuse Caltrans' approach.

About half of the roughly 500 to 600 lawsuits the agency attracts each year involve claims that personal injury resulted from its road designs, said Caltrans legal chief Bruce Behrens. What does it do upon receiving a complaint about property damage resulting from road construction?

"We would always investigate it," he said.

But Caltrans is like any government agency: big, impersonal and defensive. And when it comes to road building agencies -- and this probably dates back to when the Romans built the first cobblestone highways -- engineers don't like to hear about their mistakes, big or small.

Of course, highway engineers are doing better than ever and anybody who's spent time in many foreign countries comes back with a better appreciation of the quality of California roads. But the fact is that U.S. highway engineers haven't been subjected to the same pressures as automotive engineers in improving public safety.

Too much emphasis is placed on keeping traffic moving, rather than promoting safety. The damage Malott suffered seems minor, compared with the potential threat to life and limb that was at risk when the vehicle hit the 4-inch ridge in the road. Caltrans ought to start being smarter and get rid of those 4-inch ridges in its repaving projects.

Public safety is not just the responsibility of drivers and car makers.

It really begins with the government agency that furnishes the roads.


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