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Report: Calif. highway dept. needs 'modernizing'

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The California Department of Transportation desperately needs fundamental reforms to help a changing state move people and goods more efficiently, according to a report released Thursday.

The report recommended a sweeping overhaul of Caltrans, the common name for the department whose most visible mission is the construction and maintenance of highways in the state.

Among the suggested changes were to focus on transportation projects that encourage more dense development rather than freeway-enabled sprawl and management changes to push innovation.

“Caltrans today is significantly out of step with best practice in the transportation field and with the state of California's policy expectations. It is in need of modernization,” according to the report, which was written by the State Smart Transportation Initiative, a program at the University of Wisconsin. Co-author Joel Rogers told reporters that problems identified in the report have persisted for decades, and that as a result Caltrans operates as “a highway department, not a mobility department.”

In a written statement, Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty said: “We see this as a tremendous opportunity to reassess our priorities and improve our performance. We have some internal reforms already underway so we can hit the ground running.”

The report (http://bit.ly/1a4lvbd ) was commissioned for $270,000 by the California State Transportation Agency, which oversees Caltrans as well as the California Highway Patrol and Department of Motor Vehicles.

Brian Kelly, secretary of the state transportation agency, said the report will not languish as a bunch of good ideas that go nowhere.

“I am committed to improving the operations of the department,” Kelly said, adding that he expects initial reforms over the next six months.

Though the report cited a “culture of risk aversion and even fear” within the Caltrans bureaucracy, Kelly said employees openly discussed problems with researchers and he believes there is a “collective hunger among the department staff to modernize.”

Whatever changes Caltrans makes likely would have to be done with fewer resources. Its budget last year was $12.8 billion; this year's proposed budget is $10.9 billion.

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