Time for an overhaul, Caltrans

‘Caltrans today is significantly out of step with best practices in the transportation field and with the state of California’s policy expectations.’

That quote comes from a report released yesterday, commissioned by the State Transportation Agency and authored by an independent consultant, the State Smart Transportation Initiative (SSTI). The SSTI Assessment and Recommendations report offers a candid assessment of California’s Department of Transportation and asserts that Caltrans needs a total overhaul in mission, management, and operations.

According to SSTI, times and transportation needs have changed and Caltrans has not adapted. Caltrans was organized to build a state highway system between cities and despite evolving needs for transportation sustainability, Caltrans is still oriented toward capital projects that move cars. State policies such as SB375 ‘signal a need for Caltrans to support reductions in auto travel via low transportation-demand land use patterns,’ yet ‘these outcomes are precisely the opposite of what Caltrans was set up to do.’

The report describes, in great detail, deficiencies in how Caltrans views its role, the standards and manuals that direct its work, and the organizational culture from top to bottom. A few examples excerpted from the SSTI analysis:

  • ‘Caltrans mission, vision, and goals are not well-aligned with current conditions and demands,’ entirely avoid the word ‘sustainability’, and ‘have not come to grips with … the relationship between transportation and land use.’

  • ‘Caltrans has not developed the resources needed in the modern post-Interstate building era,’ and its continued ‘use of automotive level of service standards … has been a barrier to the compact development sought by state policy and may have induced the opposite.’

  • ‘Standard operating procedures… are too inflexible and do not do enough to mainstream facilities for non-SOV (single occupancy vehicle) travel into project development.’ ‘Peculiar standards on bicycle facilities even pertain to locally owned streets, precluding active transportation initiatives.’

  • ‘Caltrans has not ‘adapted to the multi-stakeholder environment’ required in the SB375 era, or ‘developed sufficient communication skills and procedures to either explain its own decisions well or to take into account important material from communities and partners.’

The strong critique of Caltrans in the SSTI report illuminates why the Department has struggled with initiatives such as implementing a Complete Streets policy that has been on their books for 6 years – Deputy Directive 64-R1.  Their Complete Streets Implementation Plan, which intended to revise all of Caltrans manuals to include language requiring “design for all users” and then train the nearly 20,000-strong staff statewide on the new standards, was largely unfunded and understaffed. The Implementation Plan was declared “complete” in 2013 before staff training was undertaken beyond an initial pilot phase.

‘Modernize Caltrans’

Despite the harsh critique, there is hope for Caltrans. In addition to the thorough analysis of current Caltrans operations, the SSTI report offers a laundry list of recommendations for Caltrans to change and adapt to new realities. The first is to ‘establish a mission, vision, and associated goals that reflect current state law and policy’.  In other words, wake up Caltrans, you’re way behind the times!

Some of the other recommendations for Caltrans include ‘strengthen relationships with other state agencies,’ ‘generally rethink its approach to facilities in metro areas and town centers,’ ‘give designers the option of using NACTO urban design standards,’ ‘assert leadership in the area of sustainable transportation,’ ‘ensure communications with local stakeholders are genuine and two-way,’ and dozens of other ideas for reform.

Now it’s up to the State Transportation Agency and Caltrans senior leadership to decide how quickly and deliberately to move on the SSTI recommendations. Secretary Brian Kelly has pledged his ‘commitment to modernizing Caltrans… and taking action to deliver a modern transportation system that Californians deserve.’ It’s up to us advocates to engage in the reform effort and support the stakeholder process that emerges.

Read the full SSTI report here.

Read the Sacramento Bee coverage of the report.

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