Caltrans, the Blunder Lizard

By Michael Pickering

The largest known dinosaur was the Brontosaurus, literally the thunder lizard.  Its brain, estimated as the size of a fist, was too small to manage the whole beast. Apatozaur, Apatosaurus, Brontozaur, Brontosaurus,, Instead, it used a distributed intelligence in the form of neuro-bodies called ganglia.  Since they had only one neural system, the decision nodes were in constant, real-time communication.  This form of committee decision is the initial model for Caltrans management.  However, unlike the dinosaur, Caltrans adds an orthogonal system of decision node ganglia.  Not only is there a multiplicity of decision nodes within Caltrans, but other state agencies are nodes as well.  The dinosaur’s decisions were planar while Caltrans is a volume, both horizontal and vertical.

In the last century, during my early teens, perhaps middle or high school, I heard a Q/A joke:

Q:  What’s orange and sleeps four?

A:  A Caltrans van.

Caltrans was founded in 1895 as the Bureau of Highway.  Today it owns and operates ~15,000 miles of the California State Highway System.  Its annual budget is in excess of six billion dollars and it has more than 20,000 employees.

Because of the amount of public moneys involved and the scale of their projects, Caltrans regularly makes front-page news.  Unfortunately, it is always bad ink: delivery deadlines missed by years, budget overruns by many zeros.

In 1993, in order to address these common failures, Caltrans Director Van Loben Sels issued a charter to hold a peer review of the project management implementation plan.  The study group included Bechtel Corp., the U.S. Corps of Engineers, and the US Department of the Navy.  Some of their findings include the lack of:

  • realistic goals and objectives linked to civil service constraints;
  • communication, with specific roles and responsibilities not uniformly understood;
  • consistent management support with different district agendas; and
  • authority, with micromanagement by headquarters.

Similarly, in 1994 SRI International evaluated project management in response to Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 72.

bay bridge new span 2013
Eastern Span of Bay Bridge in 2013
Photo: Michael Macor, The SF Chronicle

The study found that Caltrans remains “rule driven” rather than “product driven” due to its longstanding bureaucratic culture.  SRI concluded that the Caltrans culture, not the organizational structure, was the culprit.  At the time, news analysts across the state described the audit as “scathing.”

So here we are in June of 2013.  Caltrans is front-page news because the replacement Bay Bridge span is years overdue and seriously over budget.  (Does anybody even remember that the reason for building the new span is that the old span is damaged and unsafe?).  The headlines are “Who Picked the Bad Bolts?”  The federal government is investigating California, the California legislature is investigating Caltrans, Caltrans is investigating vendors and other State agencies, and vendors are professing that all products were produced to the ordered specifications.  Although the bolts were made to spec (we hope; the jury is still out on this point), using them in this particular bridge design was inappropriate.

Eastern Span of Bay Bridge 2005
Photo: Wendy Rasmussen

The news reports of the multiplicity of investigations will drift off of the front page.  No little brain will be found, no ganglia identified.  Nothing will be revealed in real time.  The volume of decision nodes will hide all culpability.  The last report will be silence.



Editor’s Note:

The dinosaur which many of us know as Brontosaurus never really existed. The paleontologist who assembled the beast mistakenly placed the head of camarasaurus on the body of an apatosaurus. NPR has a fun story on this topic:

So does the UnMuseum