Guest Commentary: I-80 Whistleblower – Caltrans Needs to Change for 21st Century

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Jeanie Ward-Waller, former Caltrans deputy director of Planning and Mode Development until she noted likely environmental violation on I-80 widening project.

Is misappropriation of funds a standard practice?

By Alan Hirsch, YoloMobility

News of a high-level Caltrans whistleblower hit the national media in recent weeks with stories in the Sacramento Bee, LA Times and Politico. But when you meet former Caltrans Deputy Director of Planning and Modal programs Jeanie Ward-Waller, you learn that she was forced out of Caltrans and into a public whistleblowing role by just one action.

She spoke via Zoom at a meeting of the Environmental Council of Sacramento (ECOS) on Thursday 10/19. In her opening remarks she said:

  • She misses her colleagues of six years who are doing good work to evolve Caltrans.
  • “We need good people in government.”
  • Caltrans has an important role in maintaining our existing highways.
  • Achieving a well-functioning transportation system is her life’s work and she misses being engaged.

She said her demotion and effective firing were a total surprise. Her story of how it happened started when she noted that Caltrans District 3 seemed to have misappropriated extra funds from a pavement rehab project to rebuild shoulders in a wider and more expensive way so that they could be easily converted to extra lanes. Technically it would not count as widening until the stripes for these lanes are painted. Widening the freeway had not been approved by elected officials or undergone the required public and environmental review process.  One thing she didn’t mention: the amount of misappropriated funds in question is likely on the order of tens of millions dollars — part of the $240 million I-80 Yolo Causeway pavement rehab project, which is separate from the I-80 widening project. (continued below)

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Sign up for the I-80 Teach-In  Wednesday, Nov 8th at 7 pm at Davis Community Church (4th x C).  and learn more. Sponsored by Davis Future Forum/Cool Davis and featuring a panel of experts, including Professor Susan Handy of UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies. Event will be live with Q & A, but if you register we will send you recording link.

When she suggested to coworkers at Caltrans District 3 that this needed to be scrutinized, her concerns were met with “eye rolls” by longtime staff accustomed to how things often get done.  Three weeks later she was surprised to receive notice of her demotion. She explained that her civil service status means she had the right to return to a junior job. Ward-Waller is now on administrative leave so technically she is still a Caltrans employee. Only at that point did she file the whistleblower complaint.

She describes the misappropriation of funds to jump start the widening as kind of standard practice. With 12 Caltrans districts across the state accountable only to the Governor, they wield considerable unchecked power to “do what it takes” to advance freeway widening projects. Caltrans District 3 (which includes Davis, Sacramento, east to Tahoe, north to Chico, headquartered in Marysville) is no exception. District 3 may actually be one of the worst in terms of cutting environmental corners.

When asked what accountability for Caltrans management staff would look like even if the State Auditor found misappropriation of funds, Ward-Waller did not know. She said it’s up to the public to put pressure on local elected officials to make sure what was legislated, planned, and funded is actually built by Caltrans. “There is no guarantee what is in the plan will be built,” Ward-Waller said.  She laughed when asked about how to get more “civilian control” of Caltrans, an allusion to “civilian control” of the Pentagon called for by Vietnam war-era protestors.

Ward-Waller described the culture at Caltrans: Most of the engineers and managers at Caltrans were hired 30 to 40 years ago to expand the freeway system, the prevalent practice for most of the 20th century. They have devoted their entire careers to this. It’s their natural inclination to bend the rules if necessary to meet these traditional objectives. She said her job was to challenge the status quo and help the agency evolve to address challenges of the 21st century that now include climate, transportation choices, and equity, in addition to the free flow of cars.  She is hopeful that the agency is on the verge of a perspective shift, noting a new cohort of good people on board now. During her talk she praised many people, including Yolo Mobility’s Andy Furillo.  She offered a hopeful observation about culture change at Caltrans: 50% of Caltrans staff are at retirement age.

Regarding the Yolo I-80 Project, she said the project has $86 million starter money (25% of total) in the form of a “high visibility” federal INFRA grant that must begin construction by the fall of 2024, otherwise this funding is lost. But what needs to be done to meet the grant’s timeframe is difficult at best: A YoloTD memo said that Caltrans staff will have to do 18 months’ worth of work in six to eight months. Given this constraint and that federal money is hardwired by Congress into adding vehicle lanes, Caltrans certainly has a temptation to cut corners. Caltrans is trying to figure out what they can deliver with the starter $86 million and still pass EIR muster for phase 1.

As background, the original cost of the first attempt at a phase 1 of this two-phase project was $207 million of approximately $380 million total. But this phasing plan was killed when Caltrans itself ranked providing the missing $103 mil in missing phase 1 funds the lowest priority out of 24 statewide projects. The California Transportation Commission (the agency that makes funding decisions) followed suit and nixed this $103 million grant request at its June 2023 meeting.  District 3 then had to devise a greatly scaled back Phase 1, something it could deliver for the $86 million yet still meet EIR standards. To complicate this further, they must complete the EIR process, create detailed construction blueprints to put out to bid and obtain a signed contract before the federal INFRA money expires on September 30th 2024.  It was of particular interest to Ward-Waller that the draft EIR was stalled on the Governor’s desk for over two weeks, given the short timeframe.  But she added, “I left three weeks ago so I don’t know anything more than you.” The Governor’s Office is now the target of comments on the EIR, and 60 statewide environmental groups have written a letter objecting to I80 widening as part of Caltrans seeming underground program to widen the other freeways.

There were 67 people on the ECOS Zoom call on Thursday 10/19, including leaders from several statewide transportation groups, Caltrans employees, and retired transportation planners. Two of the callers were from overseas as well as a number of transportation professionals who self-identified as “friends of Jeanie.”  Notable on the call was Donna Neville, a Davis City Councilmember. She is the retired Chief Counsel from the State Auditor’s office, the agency that could audit Caltrans on matters like misappropriation of funds.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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10 thoughts on “Guest Commentary: I-80 Whistleblower – Caltrans Needs to Change for 21st Century”

  1. Walter Shwe

    I have had enough of this obvious hypocracy. All those that oppose the widening of Interstate 80 should be permanently prohibited from driving on I-80. No excuses accepted. 😀

    1. David Greenwald

      How would you even do that?

      With that said, I think there are legitimate questions about how much benefit a freeway expansion would actually bring.

      1. Walter Shwe

        An even better idea would be to forcibly remove all vehicles from people that oppose the widening. The State can pay their owners fair market value for the vehicles. This would force them to use the existing mass and public transit systems and enjoy the inconveniences and alterations to their schedules and travel plans they would have to make. For Davis residents that would entail actually regularly using Unitrans, YoloBus and Amtrak. Once again no excuses would be accepted. No cheating by using Zip cars, taxis, shuttles, Uber or Lyft. If you are confined to crutches or wheelchairs that’s just too bad.

    2. Alan Hirsch

      Walter:

      Induced Demand is basis economic behavior has has long been accepted in the transportation world.

      Even Caltrans acknowledge Induced Demand in many paper and studies, including accuracy of UC Davis ITS’s  Induce Demand  Calculator  +/- 20%,

      Induced demand was fought out in court in 1990 (Duekmajia vs citizen for better environment.

      It is an convenient truth—truth which are not always intuitive and people want ot deny them when it in their best interest, like Highway engineeer. I like tobaco exec denying lung cancer or exxon execs on CO2.

      Science can be Pretty inconvenient to status quo.

      If Caltrans HQ accept the science of induced demand– but civil service protected freeway building engineers, construction unions and freeway building contractors resist inconvenient truths, why should that be a surprise?

  2. Richard McCann

    It appears that Caltrans is delaying, perhaps indefinitely, the release of the EIR on the I-80 expansion. It was already delayed but this internal dissension may have contributed to that and with the public revelation, Caltrans could be rethinking its game plan.

  3. Tim Keller

    This is an very interesting view into cultural momentum I think…

    We have learned in the past decades that widening freeways only helps temporarily and has mostly negative long-term effects.   (look up induced demand). One would THINK that the professionals in that industry would be the first to absorb these findings and incorporate them into their work…   But this article tells us that the people building the roads have entirely resisted ALL new thinking about transportation and that people have to RETIRE for new thinking to take hold…. that is really a sad comment on us as a species.

    The same thing is I think very present in housing.   people think that housing = houses.   But we know that single family housing is basically the worst thing for us to build…  yet that is still what is being proposed, and still what numerous people in the community think we need.

    Are we THAT incapable of learning and acting on new things?

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