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Caltrans Slammed for Lax Oversight, Crumbling Roads

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - California's extensive highway system suffers from a drastic lack of planning and financial foresight and the road maintenance program is outdated, the state auditor said Thursday.

The audit calls on the state Legislature to force the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, to adopt a stricter budget process that takes into account traffic volume and climate factors.

The 67-page audit focused on Caltrans' maintenance division, which performs minor projects on the state's more than 50,000 lane miles and 13,000 bridges.

According to the report, Caltrans struggles with performing and tracking minor service requests, such as filling potholes or fixing guard rails, within 90 days. The audit found more than 30,000 unresolved service requests initiated through Caltrans' website between 2010 and 2015.

"Caltrans was unable to tell whether those service requests still remained incomplete or whether it had acted on the request and simply failed to update the system," the audit states.

Furthermore, Caltrans supervisors do not review or approve work orders for field maintenance requests and the lack of oversight could lead to "opportunities for fraud, waste and abuse."

State auditor Elaine Howle blasted Caltrans for paying $250,000 to develop a budgeting model for the maintenance department in 2009 and subsequently ignoring the program without informing lawmakers.

"Although the maintenance division never implemented its model, the division has been reporting to the Legislature that it is using this sophisticated model to allocate field maintenance funding to its districts that takes into account key maintenance need indicators, such as traffic volume and climate," the audit states.

Along with failing to track maintenance requests, Howle criticized Caltrans' method of divvying funds to its various districts.

The audit found Caltrans' busiest districts, Los Angeles and Oakland, receive a disproportionally lower amount of funding than districts with less traffic. Despite handling 43 percent of the state's traffic, the two districts receive just 27 percent of the maintenance program's budget.

The report comes as the lawmakers are wrapping up a special transportation session called by Gov. Jerry Brown last year. Brown has proposed a new gas tax to help fund California's estimated $5.7 billion in unfunded highway and bridge repairs, but it has not gained much traction with lawmakers.

Supporters of the new gas tax claim it's necessary to make up for lost tax revenues caused by falling gas prices and the influx of electric vehicles in California. While gas prices have dropped, driving on California's roads increased more than 11 percent in 2014 according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Recent estimates have California's current fuel excise tax generating only $2.3 billion, leaving billions in repairs unfunded. In order to address the deficit, Caltrans has introduced a pilot program that will track and charge drivers by the mile instead of the current fuel excise tax.

State Sen. Patricia Bates, R- Laguna Niguel, said the audit raises "more disturbing questions" about Caltrans' use of transportation funding and bashed the gas-tax proposals.

"Simply giving Caltrans more money will not change the status quo. We owe it to taxpayers to reform Caltrans in a way that ensures needed maintenance work is actually performed," Bates said in a statement.

As for Caltrans' current management of the maintenance program, which accounts for 14 percent of its total annual budget, Howle recommends adopting the 2009 budget model and require that service requests be completed within 30 days.

In a response letter, Caltrans said it "concurs with the recommendations in the report" and called it timely because of the current transportation proposals before the Legislature.

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