Results in Brief
The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is responsible for constructing, improving, and maintaining California’s highway system (state highway system). This report focuses on Caltrans’ maintenance activities. Maintenance is defined by state law as the preservation and upkeep of roadway structures in the safe and usable condition to which they have been improved or constructed. Caltrans’ division of maintenance (maintenance division) administers the maintenance program, which focuses on preventative work to correct small problems before they grow to require more costly repairs. The maintenance program consists of two types of work: highway maintenance and field maintenance. Highway maintenance includes more significant work that contractors perform to repair pavement, bridges, and drainage culverts. Field maintenance, on the other hand, is generally performed by maintenance division staff and includes activities such as repairing minor pavement damage, clearing vegetation, and picking up litter. Although we reviewed the maintenance division’s processes for both highway maintenance and field maintenance, the concerns we identified relate primarily to field maintenance. We were asked to review district 7 (Los Angeles) and two other districts; we selected district 4 (Oakland) and district 6 (Fresno).
Although it developed a logical approach for addressing field maintenance needs, the maintenance division abandoned the approach. Specifically, the maintenance division never implemented a budget model (model) that it paid $250,000 to develop in 2009. Use of that model would have allowed the maintenance division to identify the resources needed to maintain highways with similar conditions at a similar level of maintenance performance (known as a service score). The model categorized sections of the state highway system into zones based on climate and on traffic levels, and it took into consideration the service scores for several maintenance activities and the inventory of road elements, such as bridges and tunnels. The maintenance division asserted to us that the model produced funding allocations that were unreasonable, such as the need to reduce more than 100 staff positions at district 7 (Los Angeles); but instead of trying to determine why the model produced such allocations, the maintenance division decided to abandon it.
We found that the maintenance division did not implement the zone‑level evaluation of service scores but instead samples conditions broadly across each district, which does not provide the same level of information. The maintenance division also does not establish goals for all categories of maintenance activities it evaluates and does not use the information it gathers about maintenance needs to meet its service goals or to plan its work. For example, some districts’ service scores, which indicate the level of maintenance need, have remained generally low over the last five fiscal years. A low service score means the district has a high maintenance need. While the maintenance division averages the districts’ service scores to calculate a statewide score, it does not weight the districts’ scores according to traffic volumes, which misrepresents the status of the majority of the state’s most heavily used roads. When we adjusted the service scores to account for traffic volumes, the statewide scores fell several points.
The maintenance division also could not demonstrate that it uses the information on low service scores to strategically plan its work to address maintenance needs and improve the scores. Instead of holding districts accountable for improving their scores, the maintenance division establishes spending goals for some field maintenance activities. While we found that the districts we reviewed sometimes exceeded their spending targets, the corresponding service scores generally remained stagnant or even worsened. In addition, the three districts we reviewed could provide only short‑term plans for activities they intended to complete, and these plans did not adequately establish priorities or facilitate the monitoring of progress toward improving the districts’ scores. For example, some of the plans consisted of emails from supervisors that listed brief descriptions of selected activities to complete over the ensuing week. The maintenance division did have robust requirements for planning work, but it decided to do away with these requirements because it believed the requirements demanded too much time. Without adequate plans for completing field maintenance work, district staff have little accountability for how well they meet maintenance needs.
In addition, 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. However, the maintenance division informed us that instead of using the model, it has actually been distributing funding based on a simple historical average of each district’s spending. In fact, we found the districts’ allocations remained largely unchanged from fiscal years 2010–11 through 2014–15. As a result, the Legislature and other decision makers may have believed that headquarters was using a more robust approach to allocate funding to the districts than it actually was, causing those decision makers to be less likely to question the allocations.
We found that simply using historical averages to allocate field maintenance funding to the districts does not align with key indicators of field maintenance needs. For example, the two districts that handle the biggest percentage of the state’s traffic volume (43 percent) only receive 27 percent of the funding. Additionally, although some districts had low service scores, headquarters did not adjust its overall allocations to those districts to better align with their needs. As a result, districts may not be able to fully address such needs, which could delay maintenance work and result in more costly repairs in the future. These effects may also be exacerbated because headquarters is potentially underfunding the districts with relatively greater traffic volume.
Because Caltrans did not implement the budget model and instead based its allocations of field maintenance funding on historical averages, it is not surprising to find that the three Caltrans districts we reviewed spent significantly different amounts for field maintenance on highways with similar indicators of maintenance need. For example, in comparing highway sections based on climate and traffic levels, we found the maintenance division spent significantly less per mile for field maintenance on some sections of highway in each district than it did on other similar sections of highways in those same districts. These results further indicate that Caltrans needs to assess whether districts are using funds in a manner commensurate with need.
The maintenance division also cannot demonstrate that it promptly performs certain field maintenance work. Specifically, the maintenance division does not establish time frames for completing maintenance service requests (service requests) it receives from the public, so we calculated how long each service request had been outstanding. Data from Caltrans’ online service request system indicate that more than 30,000 service requests that were received through the online system by the three districts from fiscal years 2010–11 through 2014–15 remained unresolved after more than 90 days. 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. In addition, districts receive service requests via methods other than Caltrans’ website, but the districts have poor processes for tracking whether they complete them. Failure to perform or delay of needed maintenance work can create unsafe conditions.
Moreover, we found that the maintenance division has weak cost controls over field maintenance work orders, which creates opportunities for fraud, waste, and abuse. Specifically, our review of work orders found limited evidence to support whether the costs and resources used were reasonable and appropriate. Despite requirements to review and approve work orders, district supervisors do not document their review and approval that the resources used to complete field maintenance work orders were necessary and appropriate and that costs were reasonable. Additionally, audits of field maintenance work orders that Caltrans’ internal auditors conducted in 2013 and 2015 found instances in which physical inventory counts of the chemicals used to control vegetation did not match recorded amounts and staff time sheets were not promptly reviewed and approved and had errors. These weak controls make resources and equipment susceptible to theft or misuse.
Finally, although the maintenance division is generally managing highway maintenance projects appropriately, the backlog of pavement and drainage culverts that need maintenance work is increasing. The maintenance division allocates funding for highway maintenance proportionally to the districts based on the condition of pavement and bridges. In contrast, Caltrans asserts that it generally distributes funds for culverts equitably among the districts because the budget is relatively small compared to the identified needs of the districts. Our review of pavement and bridge projects found that the maintenance division generally ensured that contractors completed the projects on time and within budget. However, since 2011 the number of highway lane miles that need maintenance has increased from 11,053 to 15,272, and the number of culverts that need maintenance has increased from an estimated 13,185 to 27,346. Although the maintenance division’s goal given its current funding level is to repair only 2,100 lane miles of pavement and 140 culverts each year, Caltrans has reported that even if it were to receive additional funding it would prioritize more significant rehabilitation work ahead of this maintenance backlog. Without further action, the backlog of pavement and drainage culverts that need maintenance work will likely grow.
To better align the maintenance division’s allocations with districts’ maintenance needs, the Legislature should include language in the Budget Act that requires the maintenance division to develop and implement a budget model for field maintenance by June 30, 2017, that takes into account key indicators of maintenance need, such as traffic volume, climate, service scores, and any other factors the maintenance division deems necessary to ensure that the model adequately considers field maintenance need. Once the model is developed, Caltrans should use it to inform appropriate allocations to the districts.
Caltrans should revise the language in its future five‑year maintenance plans to accurately describe the method it uses to allocate field maintenance funding to its districts.
To ensure that it performs field maintenance work consistently on highways with similar needs, the maintenance division should do the following:
- Assess whether districts are using funds in a manner commensurate with indicators of need included in its new budget model.
- Implement the zone‑level evaluation of service scores contemplated in the earlier budget model that it abandoned.
- Establish zone‑specific service score goals for all of the field maintenance activities it deems critical to ensuring a safe and usable state highway system and require districts to meet those goals for all the zones within their borders.
- Implement requirements for strategically planning field maintenance work that it believes are feasible and ensure that supervisors plan and schedule field maintenance work in accordance with those requirements to monitor progress toward improving service scores.
Caltrans should require its staff to verify and update the status of all outstanding service requests. Additionally, Caltrans should require supervisors to monitor completion of service requests by reviewing the data from the service request system monthly to identify service requests not completed after a period of time that Caltrans deems appropriate, such as 30 days. For all service requests outstanding after this period, Caltrans should require its supervisors to determine the status of the service requests and ensure the work is appropriately prioritized.To prevent and detect fraud, waste, and abuse and to ensure costs are appropriate, the maintenance division should strengthen its controls over reviewing and approving work order costs by requiring its supervisors and superintendents to document their review and approval of work orders.