Caltrans must be held accountable for misspent funds

It was clear from the beginning that voters didn’t trust Sacramento to spend new gas tax revenue for its promised purposes.

In the push to pass Senate Bill 1 in 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature agreed to put a “lock box” measure on the ballot to protect the new transportation revenue from budget raids, and they also agreed to create a new position at Caltrans — an independent inspector general with the authority to investigate transportation projects and make sure public dollars are spent appropriately and legally.

Senate Bill 1 passed narrowly, sharply raising taxes on gasoline and diesel along with a noticeable hike in vehicle registration fees. Californians were told the revenue from the tax increase would be used to repair roads and bridges and fund transit improvements.

Clearly skeptical, voters passed the “lock box” measure, Proposition 69 on the June 2018 ballot, with over 80% of the vote. Yet the lock appeared to be picked earlier this year when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order to redirect transportation funds to projects that address climate change.

Even before that, Newsom threatened to withhold SB1 funds from cities that failed to build enough housing. That proposal met with resistance and appears to have been dropped. Still, the entire exercise has only served to increase cause for suspicion about diversions of tax revenue away from the use that was promised.

The independent inspector general may be off to a better start. Rhonda L. Craft was appointed to the position five months ago and has just presented her first report at a meeting of the California Transportation Commission.

Craft’s report detailed the results of 70 audits and 400 reviews. For the fiscal year that ended June 30, the auditors found $13 million in “disallowed” expenditures for the fiscal year that ended June 30. This included $7.4 million of bond funds were spent improperly for programs covered by the $19.9 billion transportation bond, Proposition 1B, approved by state voters in 2006.

The auditors found no misuse of SB1 funds, but then, it’s still early.

Craft’s team also investigated hundreds of complaints about Caltrans employees. They substantiated wrongdoing in 28 cases, including some that involved falsification of documents, misuse of state computers and vehicles, conflicts of interest and substance abuse.

Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, who is vice chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, said “the status quo is not acceptable.” Transportation Commissioner Yvonne Burke said, “We think that if there are issues that have to be addressed they should be addressed.” Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco said Caltrans has recouped $1.3 million and will work to improve its processes.
No one should make the mistake of thinking they can issue a statement saying the right thing and then go back to ignoring the problem.

Californians pay the highest fuel taxes in the nation, and Caltrans’ budget is $14.2 billion. There is no excuse for crumbling roads and bridges or for wasteful contracts that enrich consultants without improving transit systems. Elected officials should be doing more to make sure the taxpayers’ money is well spent.

Caltrans should be held accountable, and so should elected officials if they look the other way as consultants and contractors milk the system.