Pothole Coast Highway: California Faces an Infrastructure Crisis

Pot hole in residential road surface

The Pacific Coast Highway stretch between Dana Point in Orange County, Calif., at the southern end, and Fort Bragg in Mendocino on the northern end, “is a bucket-list trip,” the New York Daily News enthused two years ago. “Stretching 650 curve-hugging, jaw-dropping miles along the ruggedly beautiful central coast of California, Highway 1 is one of the most scenic roads in the country.”

What the newspaper didn’t mention is that anyone winding along California roads might think that the Big One has already hit. Streets and highways across the state are in awful shape: a cracked, crumbling mess pock-marked with potholes, which tend to grow larger due to time, weather, and government negligence.

Some potholes grew so monstrous after recent heavy winter rains that California Highway Patrol officers in Oakland actually named one — “Steve.” They should have called it “Jerry,” after Governor Brown, who has done little about the state’s failing infrastructure except talk about it, while continuing to seek funding for a costly and unnecessary high-speed rail system. A bit of help for the weary motorist who’s thinking about making a justifiable claim against Caltrans for the damage it’s done to his car? Not in Brown’s California. Chapman University professor and City Journal contributing editor Joel Kotkin wrote last year in the Orange County Register that Brown’s goal “is to make congestion so terrible that people will be forced out of their cars and onto transit.”

Not all of California’s infrastructure problems can be blamed on the winter weather. In 2015, in the midst of a withering drought, the Mercury News reported that a family’s car hit a “killer pothole” near Sacramento with such force that its airbags inflated. Repairs would have cost nearly $15,000, so the insurance company wrote if off as a total loss. Though that might sound like a one-off event, California roads are indeed wrecking cars. “Deficient roads” in the Los Angeles area cost motorists an average $2,800 in annual repair costs. The state implicitly admits that its roads are a mess through a law that enables car owners who feel they’ve “lost money or property as a result of any action or inaction by Caltrans” to make five-figure claims against the agency.

The Reason Foundation, which for decades has rated road conditions across the country, ranked California roads 42nd in the nation in its 22nd Annual Highway Report. The state is 45th in rural-interstate pavement condition, 48th in urban-interstate pavement condition, and 48th in congestion in urbanized areas, the study says. “Half of the nation’s rural interstate mileage in poor condition is located in just five states,” says Reason’s Adrian Moore, and California is one of them. Media reports say that nearly 60 percent of the roads need repair. Will Kempton, a former Caltrans director, told the Los Angeles Times in February that road conditions were the worst he’d ever seen.

Roads aren’t the only infrastructure breaking down in California; its dams are no longer trustworthy. The Oroville Dam in the Sierra Nevada foothills almost failed this winter when its main spillway fell apart. It didn’t, but its near-collapse was a warning, as the New York Times reported, that the state’s “network of dams and waterways is suffering from age and stress.” The San Francisco Chronicle said a year ago that “there are 200 dams in California that are at least partially filled with mud and are approaching the end of their working lives.”

This isn’t a surprise to policymakers, who’ve been on notice for some time. According to the Association of Dam Safety Officials, California had 334 “high-hazard potential” dams in 2005; by 2015, 678 earned that designation. Officials were told in 2005 that the emergency spillway at the Oroville Dam posed a serious risk.

Also vulnerable are the state’s levees, especially those in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta network. Problems in this patchwork of largely muddy banks, built by farmers rather than civil engineers, put much of the state’s water supply at grave risk.

Rather than fix the state’s vital artery system and shore up its dams and levees, Brown and other policymakers prefer to focus on the shiny bauble of high-speed rail and a fanciful mixture of mass transit and bike lanes in an effort to move Californians out of their cars and into forms of transportation favored by Sacramento’s political bosses. Those who resist the agenda because they want to maintain the freedom facilitated by cars are likely to be hit with a new fuel-tax hike (in a state that already has some of the highest fuel taxes in the country).

More taxes, tolls, or user fees might be tolerable if the additional dollars improved the roads. But California has a history of taxing motorists to pay for pet projects that have zero connection with improved street and highway conditions. The Golden State’s existing patterns of density and sprawl have made reliance on car travel a necessity for most residents. Mass-transit advocates can wish for magical people-moving networks that will make cars obsolete, but the state’s planners need to focus on repairing the infrastructure we already have before they start implementing their dreams of a shining California future.

California Transportation System Improves – But Still Ranked Low By New Study

Infrastructure constructionSACRAMENTO – Despite its well-documented inefficiencies and travails, California’s Department of Transportation (Caltrans) has managed to improve the state’s system of roads, bridges and freeways incrementally in recent years, according to a newly released annual survey of state highway systems by the free-market-oriented Reason Foundation.

Reason’s 22nd Annual Highway Report ranked California 42nd. While this is still in the lowest category, the ranking has steadily improved over the years, moving up from a low of 46th. Because of data-collection delays, the rankings only go through 2013.

The study measures a number of important factors: Road conditions on freeways and primary commercial highways, the state of each state’s bridges, fatality rates and various costs per mile – administrative, maintenance, capital costs and expenditures.

California has done particularly poorly on the spending side of the equation. It ranked 44th in total disbursements per mile; 43rd in maintenance disbursements per mile; 40th in capital and bridge disbursements per mile; and 47th in administrative disbursements. That reinforces a California state auditor study from last summer showing that Caltrans may have as many as 3,500 unnecessary job positions.

The state’s overall per-mile capital and bridges cost totaled nearly $170,000 – far costlier than highest-ranked South Carolina, at nearly $21,000, or middle-ranked Utah, at nearly $78,000. But California wasn’t nearly the worst. Worst-ranked New Jersey spends $839,000 per mile; Florida spends more than $380,000; and Illinois spends nearly $202,000. On administrative costs, California spends more than $47,000 per mile, compared to $1,107 per mile in top-ranked Kentucky and $3,762 in 10th ranked Texas.

On the bad side, California had one of the highest proportions of rural interstate mileage in poor condition, at 6.52 percent. Its urban interstate mileage in poor condition was even worse, at 13.32 percent, which isn’t a surprise to anyone who regularly navigates the Los Angeles, San Diego or Bay Area highway systems. The survey only looks at state-owned highway systems, not at the myriad local and regional systems that are in various conditions.

“The good news is that California reported the lowest percentage of deficient bridges of any state in the nation,” according to Reason Vice President Adrian Moore, writing in the Orange County Register. California also ranked 10th in highway fatalities with a rate of 0.9 per 100 million vehicle miles. The best performance was in Massachusetts, with 0.58 fatalities per 100 million miles and the worst was Montana, with 1.9 fatalities per 100 million miles. Those rates, however, have been dropping nationwide.

One of the survey’s authors, Reason Senior Fellow David T. Hartgen, told me Caltrans didn’t do anything dramatic between 2012 and 2013 to explain the rating improvement – but it did improve a significant number of bridges and roadways.

“A widening performance gap seems to be emerging between most states that are making progress and a few states that are finding it difficult to improve,” according to the report’s authors. “There is also increasing evidence that higher-level road systems (Interstates, other freeways and principal arterials) are in better shape than lower-level road systems, particularly local roads.”

The good news: California is among those states that are improving. The bad news: It has an extremely long way to go to reduce congestion and bring state and local roads up to snuff. On a controversial note, California’s recently released transportation plan seems to downplay the importance of expanding the state’s highway and road infrastructure.

The “California Transportation Plan 2040” focuses more on battling climate change than on expanding the state’s already clogged network of highways. “By 2040, California will have completed an integrated rail system linking every major region in the state, with seamless one-ticket transfers to local transit,” wrote Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly.

“Responding to the desires of millennials and aging baby boomers alike, we will further invest in complete, safe pedestrian and bicycle networks,” Kelly added. He also promised a new approach toward lowering maintenance costs on roads and bridges. But the state’s blueprint relies heavily on alternative transportation sources, rather than on freeways and road construction, given the “transportation system must do its part to reduce these threats (climate change) to our environment and health.”

Other reports paint a mostly gloomy picture of California’s transportation situation. Last year, the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Development Committee – during a special session designed to come up with additional funding for transportation programs – reported that “54 of California’s 58 counties have an average pavement rating of ‘poor’ or ‘at risk,’ with much of this deterioration occurring over the past six years.”

Reason found California to top the national charts on bridge condition, but the state Senate pointed to 3,000 “structurally deficient bridges.” The committee pointed to an expected doubling of freight moved on California’s freeways (from 2002 to 2035), to suggest that the state’s infrastructure will face an accelerated level of deterioration.

The session failed to come up with a long-term funding solution, but that will no doubt be a top item for the Legislature next year.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He is based in Sacramento. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Pension initiative may empower local reforms

The leaders of two local pension reforms, former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio, are working with a coalition on a statewide initiative to help local governments make cost-cutting pension reforms.

DeMaio called the proposal a “tool kit” for local officials to “fix the problems in a manner that reflects their community’s ability.” Reed said the proposal would enable “measures that people can do to make their own decisions in their own communities.”

During a break at the Reason Foundation’s third annual Pension Summit in Sacramento last week, the two men said they are “on the same page” and working with a coalition on the details of a proposed initiative for the November 2016 state ballot.

DeMaio said the state constitutional amendment would apply to the state, cities, counties, other local governments, and the University of California — all the “instrumentalities” of California government.

“I’m very big on making certain that when we move ahead on reform that it’s unassailable in the courts,” said DeMaio.

The California Public Employees Retirement System, which opposed pension cuts in three recent city bankruptcies, and the state Public Employment Relations, which tried to block the San Diego and San Jose reforms, would be covered by the initiative.

“They will have no ability but to implement faithfully the voter’s initiative,” De Maio said.

A case in point for local empowerment: A drive led by David Grau and others gathered enough signatures to place an initiative on the ballot last fall to switch new Ventura County employees to a 401(k)-style plan.

But a superior court judge removed the initiative from the ballot, ruling that nothing in the 1937 act covering 20 county pension systems allows them to “opt out or terminate” through a countywide initiative or a vote of the county supervisors.

Empowering the reform process is a big change from past statewide proposals for a specific plan, such as former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s briefly backed 401(k)-style plan in 2005 or Reed’s lower-cost pension option in 2013. None made the ballot.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” said De Maio.

Reed said a statewide initiative should be “simple and easy to explain.” He said a “big omnibus” pension proposal is difficult to explain and easy for opponents to mischaracterize.

A structural initiative is common ground for a Democrat (Reed) and a Republican (DeMaio) who led the campaigns for two very different local pension reforms overwhelmingly approved by voters in June 2012.

The San Diego initiative, overcoming a PERB lawsuit to keep it off the ballot, switched all new hires except police from pensions to 401(k)-style individual investment plans now common in the private sector.

In San Jose, the reform gave current workers the option, for pensions earned in the future, of paying more or receiving a lower pension. A superior court blocked the option. Reed said other parts of the initiative have saved $80 million to $100 million so far.

Another thing the two battle-tested reformers have in common is experience in laying the groundwork, moving in steps, and not trying to do everything at once, which seems to be the current strategy of the statewide initiative.

Before the big reform in 2012, Reed changed the San Jose pension boards, adding independence and expertise. He backed two successful ballot measures in 2010 limiting police and firefighter arbitration and allowing switches to lower pension plans.

DeMaio backed a ballot measure in 2006 requiring voter approval of pension increases, city council approval in 2008 of a “hybrid” combining a lower pension and 401(k)-style plan, and a 50-50 employer and employee split of pension costs in 2009.


Dozens of government employees picketed the appearance of Reed and DeMaio at the Reason pension summit, an early warning from a coalition of public employee unions that a pension initiative may be opposed at every step, including the first one.

Schwarzenegger dropped his 401(k)-style plan in April 2005 after emotional union television ads contended death and disability would be eliminated for police and firefighters and their families, a claim the governor disputed.

After former Assemblyman Roger Niello, D-Sacramento, filed a pension reform initiative in 2011, the union coalition picketed a luxury auto dealership he partly owned, with one sign saying, “Pensions not Porsches.”

Major donors to a new initiative might face the same campaign tactics. The number of voter signatures needed to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot next year is 585,407, down sharply from 807,615 last year due to low voter turnout in November.

But several million dollars probably would be needed for a signature drive, particularly to screen for false signatures (opponents are sometimes accused of providing) and to gather a surplus as a safety cushion.

A news release from the union coalition, Californians for Retirement Security, said the new initiative is expected to be financed by “Texas billionaire John Arnold, a former Enron executive” who contributed to the Reed and Ventura County initiatives.

In San Diego, paid signature gatherers for the pension reform initiative posted at retail stores were often joined by “blockers,” union members and others who urged shoppers not to sign the petition.

Time and money may be needed for court battles after an initiative is filed. Reed dropped his initiative last year contending that Attorney General Kamala Harris gave the measure an “inaccurate and misleading” summary that made voter approval unlikely.

Dan Pellissier of California Pension Reform suspended a pension initiative drive in 2012 “after determining the attorney general’s false and misleading title and summary makes it nearly impossible to pass.”

Pension reform had strong support in a Public Policy Institute of California poll in January last year. Public pensions were “at least somewhat of a problem” for 85 percent of likely voters, and 73 percent supported switching new hires to 401(k)-style plans.

“Without serious pension reform in California, we face a future of cuts to important services and more tax revenues diverted to unsustainable pension payments,” Reed said in a news release last month.

“It is clear that politicians in Sacramento are not serious about reforming unsustainable pension benefits for government employees, so voters must take the matter into their own hands and impose reform at the ballot box,” DeMaio said.

Dave Low, chairman of Californians for Retirement Security, had a different view in a news release issued by the union coalition last week.

“This new effort is likely to eliminate retirement security for millions of more Californians, worsen economic inequality in our state, and undermine the ability to attract and retain quality firefighters, teachers, police and other public servants,” Low said. “We are confident we can defeat it.”

Originally published by Calpensions.com

Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. More stories are at Calpensions.com.