Caltrans to be subject of independent review

World's Largest LED Light Sculpture Lights Up The Bay Bridge

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The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is illuminated with artist Leo Villareal's Bay Lights sculpture on March 5, 2013 in San Francisco.

State officials announced Wednesday that they have hired an independent organization to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the California Department of Transportation, which has come under scrutiny over safety concerns related to construction on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

The state hired an expert group called State Smart Transportation Initiative to assess the department that oversees California's vast transportation network, said Brian Kelly, acting secretary of the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency.

Housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the group includes members from 19 state transportation departments and promotes sustainable transportation practices, as well as industry reforms.

Democratic Sen. Mark DeSaulnier of Concord, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, called it an encouraging first step by Gov. Jerry Brown's administration.

"The bridge is a symbol of the larger problems," DeSaulnier said Wednesday. "And if you look at Caltrans and its management of the bridge, it's symptomatic of a lot of projects. They're insular. They're not responsive to the public. They need to be more open and realize who they work for."

State transportation officials recently disclosed that nearly three dozen seismic safety bolts on the eastern span of the bridge had broken, raising serious worries about the structural integrity of the $6.4 billion infrastructure project. The bolts, or rods, each 17 to 24 feet long, connect the bridge deck to so-called shear keys, which are large shock absorbers that control movement during an earthquake.

The new bridge is replacing a span damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It's already years late and billions of dollars over budget.

Kelly has been acting secretary since March 2012 and oversees Caltrans and other transportation departments. He said he shares concerns about management, performance and communication problems within a large state department that has 19,000 employees and a budget of $12.8 billion.

"Just like it does when you have interaction with a major business, performance matters even in government," he said. "People have expectations for performance. If we're going to have a road closed and alternative routes, they want to understand the why, the how, the timing and the alternatives are well thought out."

Kelly said the $270,000 review with a public university was driven by Brown's state reorganization plan, which will consolidate all transportation-related departments into a single California Transportation Agency this summer. There was no bid required because the state is contracting with a public entity, he said.

The study results are expected in seven months and similar reviews may be ordered for other departments such as the Department of Motor Vehicles and California Highway Patrol.

Kelly said he hopes the Caltrans performance review will help build public trust that transportation projects are being managed well. The review is expected to draw from transportation industry experts and former transportation secretaries from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and North Carolina.

"The timing is right to look at the department," he said. "Ultimately we may be looking at others but I want to start with Caltrans. It's a big department. They have a lot of challenges and a lot of demands on them. And I thought with the creation of a new agency, the timing was right doing a performance review."

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