At a town hall meeting in Montebello late last month, frustrated residents called on Caltrans officials to explain what their job is, and who’s responsible for dealing with the annoying freeway issues that have them seeing red.
“Just what is it that Caltrans is responsible for in this area,” asked one resident during the Oct. 24 town hall meeting, organized by Councilman Jack Hadjinian and Councilwoman-elect Vivian Romero.
Motorist across Los Angeles County are accustomed to seeing workers in bright orange vests and white hard hats when freeway lanes are closed, but many residents said it’s not clear to them what else the California Department of Transportation actually does.
Caltrans officials attempted to explain their role and how they can help residents deal with living near a freeway, but were quickly ambushed by a barrage of questions and complaints from the audience about issues pertaining to noise,litter, water drainage and safety.
“We are responsible for right of way fence to right away fence,” said Deborah Wong, Caltrans deputy district director of maintenance, referring to the fences that enclose the large sound walls near residential streets on each side of the freeway.
In addition to designing, building and maintaining the state’s highways, Wong said the agency is responsible for the safety of motoring traffic, the preservation of what has already been built by Caltrans and services like graffiti and litter removal along the freeway.
Who is in charge of building thicker, taller sound walls so it won’t be so noisy for nearby homes, residents demanded to know.
Not Caltrans, according to Wong, who explained that the state agency is no longer in charge of building structures like sound walls, auxiliary lanes or widening lanes. “That’s actually something that [in Los Angeles County] Metro does now,” she said.
“Caltrans no longer has the money to [build] sound walls,” Wong said. “That has been brokered off from us [to] Metro [which] has an amount of money that is allocated locally.”
In 1997, Senate Bill 45 changed the allocation of transportation funds, putting local and regional agencies like Metro in charge of planning and prioritizing projects instead of Caltrans.
“We take care of the graffiti, but the actual financing of sound walls is no longer ours,” Wong said. “We’re only going to take care of [what’s already] existing.”
Metro officials told EGP that the bulk of Metro’s money goes to improving transit with projects like the Gold Line and Expo Line extensions, unlike in other areas like Orange County, which focus their funds on highway maintenance.
Metro adds to their revenue for these projects by building toll lanes like the one on the 10 freeway, which in turn bring in more revenue towards local projects.
“That’s [Metro] bringing in money to fund thing,” said Wong.
The confusion over jurisdiction left some residents concerned about who they should contact with their problems.
Gerri Guzman, a field representative for Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia and board member for Montebello Unified School District, said she’s worried that neither agency seems to be taking charge.
“What is the chance that as we approach these issues in the future Metro is going to say these are preexisting conditions from when Caltrans oversaw this area and then Caltrans in turn will say we are no longer responsible to address these particular issues,” she asked.
Metro officials told EGP back in September that they too have been questioned regarding Metro/Caltrans jurisdictions.
Metro CEO Arthur T. Leahy told EGP that he and other Metro officials met with the state director of Caltrans to discuss their concerns regarding freeway maintenance in Los Angeles County.
“[Metro] has become a squeaky wheel in Sacramento on this” Leahy said referring to the unequal maintenance he has observed in freeways between the Mexican border and Sacramento. “I think we have made progress, but we are not happy” yet, he said.
Leahy said that Metro has informed Caltrans of the issues they have with the state agency’s handling of potholes, landscaping, irrigation systems, trash and graffiti removal along the different highways within the county.
“This is not a minor problem,” Leahy said.
But for Caltrans, graffiti and litter removal fall behind safety and preservation of the existing structures when it comes to the agency’s funding priorities.
To help lower the costs of trash and graffiti removal, Caltrans uses court-ordered probationers, inmates or workfare people to provide more than $10 million in services annually, according to the agency.
Yet, despite the fact that the unpaid workers are non-violent offenders and are supervised at all times, it’s a practice some residents said has them worried, and they would rather not see continued near their homes.
On another note, Wong said Caltrans would ideally like to line up some of their projects with work being done by Metro, but if necessary, Caltrans will move forward soon with plans to repave the 60 freeway, between the 710 and 605 freeways.
“It needs to go [forward] whether they are ready or not.”