Caltrans is spending millions of our dollars. And no one is watching out for us

A gore tip on Highway 101 at South Higuera Street onramp in San Luis Obispo.
A gore tip on Highway 101 at South Higuera Street onramp in San Luis Obispo. Courtesy photo

For nearly 40 years, I have driven Highway 101 from San Luis Obispo County to Los Angeles and back at least once a month. On many recent trips, I have started seeing things that require explanations and answers.

Can someone please explain to me why Caltrans is in such a rush to waste so much gas tax money on projects that seem to provide little or no benefit to the motoring public?

Take, for example, the following:

▪ The highway overcrossing at South Higuera needed a barrier repair on the northbound fast lane due to an accident. Caltrans’ solution: remove and then replace all four overcrossing barriers (northbound and southbound), along with adding new guardrails on South Higuera to protect the structural columns that have never been protected. This more than quadrupled the basic cost of the needed repair.

▪ The widening of the Santa Maria River Bridge at the SLO/SB county line includes a Class I bike lane from nowhere to nowhere. Since it opened, I have never seen a bicyclist on it.

▪ South of Arroyo Grande, concrete center lane barriers on both northbound and southbound lanes, when a single barrier would do, if it were needed at all.

▪ The millions of dollars spent on the northbound curve widening project at Gaviota makes no sense to me. For nearly four decades I have driven that curve without issue. Now, with the higher speeds it allows, it increases the potential danger and lessens safety to those making the left-hand turn towards Gaviota Beach, as well as those slowing to take the off-ramp to the rest area.

▪ The expansion of the Los Osos Valley Road overcrossing cost millions more than it should have due to design decisions made without a detailed cost/benefit analysis. Additional review of the southbound off-ramp and on-ramps could have saved millions by eliminating the need for a second intersection, and the needed drainage improvements included with it.

On the northbound off-ramp, an additional two feet of width could have provided enough room for a right-hand turn lane at a minimal cost increase. And, elimination of the second intersection would have made the concrete curb and barrier to the south bound onramp unnecessary and would have saved countless drivers from knocking chunks of concrete out of the curb with their cars (the orange traffic cone after thought on the top of the curb is a nice touch).

▪ And finally, the stamped concrete on-ramp and off-ramp wedges (“gore tips” as defined by Caltrans) that were installed in North County last year are being installed in South County now, and have been surveyed for construction in the San Luis area for later this year or early 2018.

Absolutely, and without question, a complete waste of gas tax resources. The North SLO 101 Roadside Safety Improvements environmental approval cost $388,000, plans and specifications cost $634,000, construction support cost $523,000, and the actual construction cost was $2.3 million. According to documents supplied to me by Caltrans, the grand total was $3.8 million for 39 gore tips and some miscellaneous grading and guardrails.

As a practicing California registered civil engineer since 1982 with experience developing cost-sensitive, multi-million dollar public works projects, my drive-by conclusion suggests these projects are based on a “low hanging fruit theory” or a simple “budget justification” practice, rather than trying to meet objective transportation needs.

What makes this problem even worse? There is no one watching out for taxpayers. No one is challenging Caltrans on the merits of the proposed projects or the costs. No one is asking if the projects are actually needed. And no one is asking if there might be a less expensive way to achieve the same level of service (if the need actually exists).

You might think San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG) would be that someone, but it only seems to rubber stamp the projects Caltrans presents. SLOCOG is an additional layer of government administration that spends and costs us $3.4 million a year in tax dollars (SLOCOG Annual Report, Financial Summary 2015-16). And it does this administration with one of the largest engineering staffs in the entire county—even larger than the current number of engineers in the Design Division of the county Public Works Department.

Because no one is watching these “nickel and dime” projects, millions of dollars are being wasted to basically justify the budget. With this waste comes the reality that we don’t have enough in the budget to do the transportation projects that are really needed, like the addition of a third south bound lane from Avila/Shell Beach to south of Arroyo Grande. Wasted funding could have been used to start that project’s basic planning, environmental documents and design work. And what makes this even worse, those in charge placed a measure on last year’s ballot calling for an additional tax to cover these wasteful practices.

For the most part, I appreciate the work Caltrans does. It’s hard work and on the roadways it is dangerous. But I believe a little inner reflection is needed. Paved wedges for on and off ramps, Class I bike lanes from nowhere to nowhere, wasteful spending on highway overcrossings, and center lane concrete barrier placement all need more review and debate before the dollars are spent. We need to have these funds for some major highway improvements and we don’t want to be taxed more to get them.

Louis G. Gibson worked for San Luis Obispo County's Public Works Department 25 years, retiring as manager of the Design Division. He has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.