Taking Land But Not Using It – CalTrans Is at It Again

(Part III)

Gold-Plated Roofs in South Pasadena

In a front-page story, the Los Angeles Times reports that CalTrans is at it again. Jack Dolan, Sky-High Prices for Roofs on Caltrans-Owned Homes, L.A. Times, June 19, 2011, at p. A1. This time it is wasting not-so-small fortunes on maintenance of homes it had acquired years ago for the completion of the I-710 freeway (linking Monterey Park and Pasadena) that somehow never came about.

In the most determined efforts we have ever seen, the City of South Pasadena has fought CalTrans politically to a standstill, and has prevented the construction of that freeway link because it does not want it to cut across the city. You could say that South Psadena put the “Not” in the expression Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY). But while the city was fighting the freeway, CalTrans was acquiring land for its planned right of way, and now is stuck with it.

To be fair, the prevailing situation, in which the state became the owner of a bunch of homes located within that planned right-of-way is not entirely its fault — it really meant to build that freeway, but it underestimated the city’s tenacity and effectiveness in opposing it. All that, however, is no justification of has gone on since CalTrans’ aquisition of all that land in South Pasadena. Since CalTrans was unable to proceed with its freeway, it decided to save money by not demolishing the homes it acquired, and renting them out while it waited for a green light for its freeway, that never came. In the meantime, years (make that decades) have gone by and CalTrans, in its capacity as a landlord of those houses became responsible for their maintenance. And here is where the fun began.

According to the L.A. Times story CalTrans has been spending outlandish amounts of money on maintenance, such as, for example, paying $171,508 for the replacement of a roof on one of those houses that has been sitting empty for at least a decade, according to a former CalTrans employee quoted by the Times. How is that possible? The science on How To Replace A Roof can’t explain how a roof replacement goes into the hundreds of thousands, that’s because they don’t, even for most mansion properties. So what’s really going on?

To begin with, CalTrans took the position that the homes in question are historical, and as such cannot be just repaired — they have to be restored to historical standards. Restored in order to be torn down for a freeway? Yep. That’s our beloved California bureacracy in action. And before you expend any sympathy on CalTrans’ plight in being caught in that Catch-22 predicament, be advised that another arm of the state, namely, the State Historical Preservation Office, takes the position that what CalTrans says just ain’t so. The Times quotes the Preservation Office head as characterizing CalTrans’ designation of these houses as historical, to be “bogus.” The CalTrans honcho’s response: “I misspoke in referring to all of these projects as historic structures.” So how did those folks run up six-figure tabs on the replacement of ordinary roofs on ordinary homes? Good question.

The culprit turns out to be “a ‘whopping fee’ tacked onto each project. Broken into a series of separate charges, the fee went to Direct Construction Unit, a small arm of the state’s General Services Departm. It amounted to nearly 20% of the cost of each job, the records show.”

And that, folks, is the same CalTrans that tends to whine in court that if it has to pay full compensation to people whose homes it takes by eminent domain, urban civilzation as we know it will come to an end.

Oh. We almost forgot. The Times story features one particuar incident in this fiasco, that cannot go without mention. CalTrans blew $103,443 on another new roof which turned out to leak. When the tenant complained, “[h]e was evicted in a dispute with Caltrans that began over the roof. “

Your tax money at work.