Capitol Alert

California auditor: Caltrans road work open to waste, fraud, abuse

The California state auditor has criticized the Department of Transportation’s approach to highway maintenance, saying Caltrans has “weak cost controls” that “create opportunities for fraud, waste and abuse.”

In a report issued Thursday, the auditor noted the highway department spent $250,000 six years ago to develop a modeling system for where and when to invest in field maintenance, but has not used the model, even though it told the Legislature it was.

Instead of distributing money based on need, field maintenance officials have been doing it based on each area’s previous spending patterns, the report authors’ said they found during a review of Caltrans local districts in Los Angeles, Oakland and Fresno.

“Without adequate plans for completing field maintenance work, (local area) staff have little accountability for how well they meet maintenance needs,” the report states.

None of the districts has a “central repository for tracking, reviewing, and approving service requests.” Possibly as a result, 80 percent of service requests in two of those districts “appeared to remain unresolved after more than 90 days,” analysts wrote.

Caltrans spends hundreds of millions of dollars statewide on maintenance, but reports it has a continual backlog of work. Since 2011, the number of highway lanes in need of maintenance has increased from 11,053 miles to 15,272 miles, according to the audit. Caltrans oversees 50,000 lane miles statewide.

Auditor Elaine Howle suggested the Legislature require Caltrans to put together a budget model by June 2017 to guide its maintenance funding decisions, taking into account traffic, climate, and a maintenance needs scoring system.

The report also recommends Caltrans implement a number of procedural and management changes that will allow it to ensure work is prioritized and to reduce the possibility of waste and fraud.

In response, Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty issued a letter to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee Thursday, acknowledging that the department mischaracterized how it allocates field maintenance in an update to its five-year work plan. “For that, I apologize and commit to providing much greater clarity in future reports.”

The Caltrans director pointed out that the auditor determined that Caltrans does handle its larger highway maintenance projects appropriately.

Dougherty faulted the auditor for looking at only part of the state’s funding efforts to maintain roads, but called the report and findings timely, and said his department already is proposing performance targets in a report to the governor on how to reduce the state highway maintenance backlog.

“We concur with the many practical recommendations in the report and have already established timelines to implement improved processes to be completed as early as July 2016,” Dougherty wrote.