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Don’t waste highway money on greedy private contractors

A Caltrans engineer photographs the inside of a large crack on the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Highway 1 in Big Sur in February.
A Caltrans engineer photographs the inside of a large crack on the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Highway 1 in Big Sur in February. The Monterey County Herald via AP

It has been more than two decades – and thousands of miles of crumbling roads and scores of decaying bridges – since California has had enough money to keep up with its highway needs.

Relief is finally on the way in November. But as one of state Sen. John Moorlach’s latest failed bills proved, where there’s money, there’s greed. And as usual, the argument to privately profit at taxpayer expense is shrouded in unwarranted criticism of dedicated public servants (“Stop ignoring Caltrans waste,” Viewpoints, June 28).

Moorlach proposed giving half of the engineering work on California’s highways to private firms through no-bid contracts. He cited phony figures – ginned up from the same private companies that want to gorge themselves on tax dollars – to try to justify his false assertion that it would be cheaper for taxpayers.

In reality, a state engineer’s pay and benefits cost $122,000 a year, less than half the $246,000 for a contract engineer to do the same work, as noted in the state budget.

The state has nearly 1,000 contract engineers doing work that Caltrans employees can perform at half the cost. Over a year, the difference is a whopping $100 million, enough to repair the Pioneer Bridge between Sacramento and West Sacramento five or six times with money left over.

Other states have seen the same thing. New Orleans decided last year to hire engineers rather than outsource the design work for $2 billion in street projects because contracting would be twice as expensive. A 2016 audit found Utah’s transportation department was paying contractors triple the cost of state engineers.

Why does this happen? In California, state law allows engineering contracts to be awarded without competitive bids. Polls show that 80 percent of taxpayers support competitive bidding. Lawmakers were wise to reject Moorlach’s proposal.

As California prepares to fix our transportation system, let’s not waste public money by overpaying private companies. California is best served when a publicly employed professional engineer designs and inspects infrastructure projects.

Bruce Blanning is executive director of Professional Engineers in California Government. He can be contacted at blanning@pecg.org.

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