Connecting with trouble
Lawmaker calls for an end to 710 extension and a probe of Caltrans following scathing state audit
By Kevin Uhrich 08/23/2012
It has not been a good month for the California Department of Transportation, Caltrans.
On Aug. 13, representatives of the state transit agency and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Metro, had their proverbial heads handed to them by hundreds of people attending a public hearing at the Pasadena Convention Center.
Dozens of angry residents formally spoke out against plans to turn Avenue 64 through Highland Park and the San Rafael neighborhood of Pasadena into a six-lane freeway or build a tunnel underneath the densely residential, two-lane thoroughfare to connect the Long Beach (710) and Foothill (210) freeways.
Various alternative connector plans being drawn up by the two giant transit agencies as part of an environmental review of the proposed 4.5-mile-long connector route were unanimously opposed that night by the Pasadena City Council.
Then, on Aug. 16, the California State Auditor released a scathing report that read more like an indictment of Caltrans’ management — or potential criminal mismanagement, as one local lawmaker apparently suspects — of most of the nearly 500 homes it owns in Pasadena, South Pasadena and the Los Angeles neighborhood of El Sereno, which sit in the footprint of the original but now-tabled above-ground connector route for the two freeways.
Among other findings, the report states that between July 2007 and December 2011, Caltrans, which did not verify the eligibility of tenants to be charged below-market rate rents, collected $12.8 million in rent but lost $22 million due to underpayment by ineligible tenants. During most of that period, Caltrans reportedly paid out another $22.5 million for questionable repairs, according to the audit.
“Caltrans understands that its management of the ‘710 properties’ has been poor and unacceptable,” Caltrans spokesperson Matt Rocco said in a prepared statement. “To improve our stewardship of these properties, Caltrans is taking immediate corrective actions in line with the State Auditor’s report. Caltrans will also explore alternatives to state management of these properties to ensure it remains focused on its core mission: improving the safety and mobility of California’s driving public.”
That’s not good enough for longtime Caltrans critic Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge), who first asked for the audit and is now calling for an end to the 710 connector project altogether, as well as an investigation of the agency’s handling of those homes seized through eminent domain beginning in the 1950s. The audit recommends the homes be turned over to a private firm or a joint powers authority made up of representatives from Pasadena, South Pasadena and Los Angeles.
“There definitely needs to be an investigation,” Portantino told the Weekly. “Somebody’s making those decisions, and based on those decisions they are spending millions and millions of dollars on a project that should not be built.”
On Wednesday morning, shortly after the Weekly’s print deadline had passed, Portantino formally called for an end to the 710 connector project.
“A 710 tunnel option would be a project of historic magnitude and tremendous cost to the taxpayers of California. There cannot be even a hint of impropriety or manipulation involved in such a project,” Portantino wrote in a letter to Caltrans and the California Transportation Commission. “Because local planners have ignored the direction of the federal government, their own state traffic protocols, and basic common sense, it is time for leaders to step in and make the bold decision to put an end to this project.”
State Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge) has introduced legislation that would have Caltrans identify the properties it will not need to tear down and put them up for sale, with proceeds going to fund local transit projects.
The audit is vindication for Don Jones, a former tenant of one of those properties in Pasadena who was evicted after more than 17 years for complaining about shoddy repairs being done on his home by Caltrans contractors. Jones, whose epic eviction battle lasted nearly three years, first brought attention to the agency’s questionable repair and rental practices through a number of stories that appeared in the Pasadena Weekly.
His story was then picked up by the Los Angeles Times, which reported Caltrans did roof repairs on 33 homes at an average cost of $71,000, some for well over $100,000. The costs were found to be four to five times what would normally be charged by private contractors for similar repairs.
Between eviction proceedings, Jones compiled Weekly stories about his case and other information on the agency’s repair practices and hand-delivered copies of his files to state officials in Sacramento, including Gov. Jerry Brown. Jones even offered his “briefing book” to elected and appointed officials with Metro and spoke before that agency’s board of directors and the South Pasadena City Council.
One excuse used to sidestep meeting with Jones was the fact that he was the subject of litigation as a result of his eviction, thus legally prohibiting officials from discussing the case with him. But, Jones said, “It’s not like Jerry [Brown] and everyone else didn’t know.”
‘No on Measure J’
Jones and his wife, Gloria Lucio, were among more than 300 people attending a community gathering of a few hundred people Wednesday evening on the front lawn of the historic Church of the Angels on Avenue 64. The event, sponsored by the San Rafael Neighborhood Association, proved to be a magnet for not only concerned citizens, but also elected officials, candidates in the upcoming November election and other neighborhood empowerment groups that are now coalescing in opposition to the 710 extension plans.
“This is a grassroots effort that shows whatever happens, this is what you’ll get,” said Robin Salzer, looking out over the throng of people assembled on the church’s sprawling front lawn. Salzer, owner of Robin’s BBQ & Woodfire Grill, and his wife, former Pasadena Councilwoman Ann-Marie Villicana, own a historic home in the path of the connector alternatives.
“This is real democracy,” Salzer said. “It shows you that people give a damn, and they’re pissed off.”
One of the staunchest critics of Metro and Caltrans over the years has been longtime Pasadena civic activist Claire Bogaard, co-chair of the No 710 Action Committee. When it was her time to address the gathering, Bogaard gave a brief history of freeways in Los Angeles and the nearly 30-year, cross-community “David and Goliath” struggle to stop the 710 and 210 connector.
Although one might never know it after reviewing the State Auditor’s report, Bogaard, wife of Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard, pointed out that Caltrans, like other state agencies, doesn’t have money to waste. But Metro, she said, could soon be flush with funding if voters approve an extension of a countywide half-cent sales tax dedicated to transit projects.
Bogaard was referring to Measure R, which passed with more than 67 percent of the vote in 2008. The 30-year tax is expected to raise $40 billion for mostly bus and light rail improvements. Earlier this month, the Board of Supervisors, with only Supervisor Mike Antonovich dissenting, voted to approve a recommendation from the Metro Board of Directors to place a measure on the November ballot that would extend the tax another 30 years.
Measure R’s brother will appear on the ballot as Measure J.
“Measure R/J has money allocated for the 710 Freeway. The earlier Measure R is funding all these studies and the Metro meetings [regarding alternative routes] that are occurring,” said Bogaard.
“As long as there is money included in Measure J for the 710 freeway extension, I am voting No on Measure J. We need to get that message to our friends and colleagues and to Caltrans and Metro now,” she added.
The eviction has taken its toll on Jones and his wife, who lived in motels for nearly six months before finding a new place in Eagle Rock. After throwing Jones and his family out, state workers tossed in the trash many of the family’s personal belongings that were still in the garage. They also cut down fruit trees Jones had grown in the backyard and a thriving cactus plant in the front yard.
“They dumped the stuff in a dumpster,” Jones said of action taken by Caltrans after their May 31, 2011 departure.
“They didn’t have to do this,” Jones said of the eviction, which was prompted by his using a profanity in the course of telling a Caltrans contractor doing shoddy work on his roof and kitchen floor to get out of the house.
“All they would have to do was not evict me and no one would have ever known,” he said.
According to the audit, Caltrans passed up roughly $22 million in rental income for most of these properties over 3½ years “because of poor management.” Caltrans’ failing to charge market rates for its rental properties constituted “a gift of public funds” to those renters, according to the audit.
The audit also found that 15 state workers — four of whom work for Caltrans — were living in those homes as of February and paying lower than market rate rents.
Although Caltrans collected net rental income of $12.8 million, from July 2008 and Dec. 31, 2011, the agency also:
* Spent an average of $6.4 million per year on property repairs but could not demonstrate that repairs for 18 of the 30 projects reviewed by auditors were reasonable or even necessary.
* Authorized repairs that far exceeded the potential rental income of the property. For 20 of the 30 properties reviewed, Caltrans authorized repairs for which it will take more than three years worth of rental income to recover the costs, according to the report.
* Transferred an average of $4.7 million annually since fiscal year 2005-06 to the state Department of General Services for property maintenance, despite the fact that the two departments have been operating without an interagency agreement. In some instances, Caltrans was unable to provide records to substantiate its approval of General Services’ work either before or after the work was performed.
* Possibly inappropriately charged through 330 hours of labor to projects related to the properties.
* Estimated that the market value of all the parcels was $279 million, when the actual sale price for many or potentially all of the residential parcels could be roughly 80 percent less than the estimated market value, in part because of restrictions in the Roberti Bill, so-named for former state Sen. David Roberti, which requires the state to sell the homes to low- to moderate-income tenants living in them at reduced rates after they are declared surplus. That can only happen after Caltrans finally abandons the overland 710 connector, which it has not yet done.
Jones, who would have been eligible to buy his home at a low cost under provisions of the Roberti Bill, said that while most lawmakers tried to avoid him, he found a receptive ear in state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who invited him into her office and listened to everything he said.
“The only person whoever sat down and really talked with me about this was Kamala Harris,” Jones said. In the end, “This audit validates everything I’ve been saying.”
In the letter sent Wednesday, Portantino wrote that, “The recent state audit highlighted the complete lack of trust that I have for the folks shepherding the 710 corridor and this historically massive project. If these folks can’t be trusted to fix a roof, how can we trust them to build a $15-billion tunnel?”
The State Auditor’s report is available at HYPERLINK http://www.bsa.ca.gov bsa.ca.gov.
To read more about Jones, visit pasadenaweekly.com.