RESULTS IN BRIEF
Oversize vehicles-vehicles that exceed certain height, weight, length, and width dimensions specified in the California Vehicle Code-require special permits and routing to travel on California's highways. California's Department of Transportation (Caltrans), through its Transportation Permits Branch (permits branch), is responsible for issuing permits and identifying safe routes for these vehicles. Problems with erroneous permits, or permits with routing errors, have contributed to incidents ranging from traffic delays to accidents, including one in which a motorist was killed. Our review of the process of issuing these permits found that Caltrans has identified the major problems with the permitting process: poor communication of roadway information and an inefficient manual system for writing permits. Moreover, the corrective actions it is pursuing are generally appropriate, although we suggest further improvements.
In fiscal year 1998-99, the permits branch issued approximately 186,000 permits for oversize vehicles that hauled loads such as manufactured housing units, storage tanks, large boats, and construction equipment to destinations throughout the State. According to Caltrans, during the period January 1996 through April 2000, 31 accidents involving oversize vehicles that struck bridges may have resulted from erroneous permits. One of these accidents, in July 1999, resulted in a fatality, raising public concerns about the effectiveness of the permits program. In response to these concerns, Caltrans has devoted significant resources to identifying problems with its permits program and proposing solutions, and it has started corrective action on most of the problems it has found.
A major problem Caltrans identified is poor communication of roadway information from its districts to the permits branch. In working to route oversize trucks safely on the state highway system, permit writers rely heavily on roadway information that is constantly changing. However, these changes are not always promptly communicated to the permits branch. As a result, Caltrans cannot reasonably ensure that oversize vehicles can safely travel approved routes and that California's highway infrastructure is protected from damage by these vehicles. Although this lack of timely information poses a potentially significant risk to public safety, the extent of the problem is unclear because Caltrans has incomplete data on the number of erroneous permits that have led to incidents other than accidents, such as traffic delays and unexpected route changes.
One reason for Caltrans' unsatisfactory communication of roadway information is its reporting structure. Caltrans' policies require hundreds of its personnel to report roadway changes to only two regional liaisons, who must analyze this information to determine whether to update the routing database with the new information. A second factor contributing to Caltrans' poor communication is the differences in the policies and procedures under which the permits branch and other Caltrans units operate. The personnel reporting roadway changes are from Construction, Maintenance, Traffic Operations, and the Office of Structures Maintenance and Investigations, four functionally separate units within Caltrans. Each unit has its own policies and procedures, which may differ from those of the permits branch in terms of what changes to report, when to report them, and who is responsible for reporting.
Caltrans is taking steps to improve its communication of roadway information. In February 2000, it submitted a request for funding to the Department of Finance asking for additional staff to reduce the workload of the two regional liaisons, but the Department of Finance denied this request because Caltrans did not adequately justify its need. Caltrans has also drafted new communication policies and procedures for the Maintenance and Traffic Operations programs and has approved a new communication policy for the Construction program. The Office of Structures Maintenance and Investigations is in the process of developing a draft communication policy. These new and draft policies are intended to be consistent with the information needs of the permits branch. However, it is not clear that the expectations for these new policies have been clearly communicated to the managers of all of these units. Our discussions with representatives of the permits branch and one of the units that is responsible for reporting roadway changes revealed that some disagreement still exists as to what the new policies cover.
Another major problem Caltrans has identified is its inefficient, labor-intensive process for writing permits. This process requires permit writers to review permit applications manually, sort through information from a variety of sources to identify a safe route, and then handwrite the approved route on the permit application. Also, because Caltrans' current system does not have adequate electronic controls to prevent the issuance of erroneous permits, it uses a second permit writer to manually double-check all overheight permits. Not only is this heavy reliance on manual processes an inefficient use of resources, it is also susceptible to human error. Finally, Caltrans does not enforce its policy requiring permit applicants to use its standard permit application forms; consequently, permit writers must work with different and sometimes confusing permit application forms.
In February of this year, Caltrans requested, but has not yet received, funding to develop an automated permit-routing system that will address many of these problems. If the funding is approved and the system is built as proposed, it should improve public safety by reducing the risk of issuing erroneous permits. It will also automate many phases of the permit-writing process that are now performed manually, making the process more efficient. Even if the funding is approved, however, Caltrans' time line for implementing the new system may be overly optimistic. Moreover, the new system will not solve certain problems. For example, some Caltrans employees we interviewed raised concerns that Caltrans has not developed standard procedures for writing permits, that its training for new and experienced permit writers is insufficient, and that turnover in the permits branch is high. Our work confirms that these concerns are legitimate.
To reduce the number of staff reporting roadway changes to the two regional liaisons, Caltrans should designate district staff to coordinate communication between the permits branch and personnel working in the field. It should also establish a process that holds accountable staff who do not comply with reporting policies.
To ensure that the database of roadway information is consistently updated with timely and accurate information, Caltrans should clearly communicate to all responsible parties its policies and procedures regarding the types of roadway information that must be reported.
To improve its process for writing permits for oversize vehicles, Caltrans should develop an automated routing system. If its current request for an automated routing system is not approved, Caltrans should seek approval again in the next budget cycle. In its new request, it should include an analysis of its staffing requirements and should also identify what the funding source would be.
To ensure that permit writers are properly qualified and trained, Caltrans should expand training for new permit writers, develop an ongoing formal training program for experienced permit writers, and consider using a different classification for permit writers that better reflects the skills and qualities required in the permit-writer job.
Caltrans generally agrees with our findings and recommendations. In addition, it suggested several wording changes to the draft report, some of which we have accepted and incorporated in the final report.