Bay Bridge

The State Worker: Caltrans controversy rekindles public vs. private debate

Jon Ortiz
Jon Ortiz

The Bee's Sunday report that a state worker violated key procedures while testing support structures for the new Bay Bridge span and other projects raises anew the question: Should California privatize more of its infrastructure work?

Privatization fans – including engineering firms hoping to get a bigger piece of the state Transportation Department pie – argue that for-profit firms can deliver services quicker, cheaper with more accountability.

Public-sector supporters – including unions – contend that the private sector's make-a-buck motive raises the risk that unscrupulous firms will cut corners. And they say contracting out costs more because you're paying both the contracted employee and the employer.

The American Council of Engineering Companies California, which represents private engineering firms, notes a state audit found during a three-year span that Caltrans busted its budget on 62 percent of completed projects for things like engineering, design and construction management.

By law, Caltrans uses its own staff for 90 percent of those so-called "support" jobs. It contracts the rest. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office suggested the $13 billion-per-year department double its contract support services to become more flexible and thin out permanent staff through attrition, because state and federal money for projects is drying up.

ACEC California Executive Director Paul Meyer said Wednesday the Bay Bridge controversy proves that Caltrans is too big and hard to manage. The employee at the center of the story, Duane Wiles, was suspected of testing irregularities for years, but wasn't fired until The Bee started asking questions. Caltrans said the firing adhered to civil service rules.

"What would happen if a similar person in a company was even suspected to be capable of making false reports? They'd get rid of him immediately," Meyer said. "There's a huge contrast in accountability."

SEIU Local 1000, which represents Wiles, declined to comment.

Professional Engineers in California Government, which represents thousands of Caltrans engineers (none of them implicated in the bridge controversy), says privatization often backfires, including a San Diego toll road that went nearly $500 million over budget.

The engineers also highlight a state Senate subcommittee report issued a few years ago that said state staff for support jobs cost $121,000 per person, including all benefits, while contracting out those jobs cost $217,000.

The private engineers' council countered with a study that showed in-house engineer costs ranged from $173,434 to $209,212, while the amount paid for an outside engineer averages $193,000.

Here's one point on which both sides agree: Bad actors are everywhere. The question is whether the government or the private sector is better positioned to deal with them.