BONUS: Blowing the whistle on widening freeways
JWW: There's a lot of inertia at Caltrans around widening the system, continuing to find ways to grow the system.
JWW: I questioned that often. You know, are these things being done truly in the public interest? Or are we just building to build and widening freeways because that's what we're used to?
AB: From KPBS in San Diego, this is Freeway Exit. I'm Andrew Bowen. And that was Jeanie Ward-Waller. On September 14, she was handed a letter from her boss at the California Department of Transportation. The subject line read: Notice of Career Executive Assignment Termination. She was being fired. About a month prior, Jeanie had started speaking up to her superiors about a freeway project Caltrans was undertaking west of Sacramento. She felt the project was using maintenance funds to unlawfully widen the freeway and shield it from scrutiny under state and federal environmental laws.
AB: Jeanie appealed her termination, alleging retaliation and sex discrimination. She's on leave while that appeal is still pending. She also filed whistleblower complaints about the freeway project with the Caltrans Inspector General's Office and the State Auditor. In a recent op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, Jeanie writes that Caltrans needs a total overhaul, and it's dominated by people who want to maintain an unsustainable status quo. She describes a so-called "green ceiling" at the agency, where people like her, who want Caltrans to focus less on freeways and more on alternatives to driving, are sidelined and dismissed. I spoke with Jeanie a couple weeks ago, and I'm thrilled to share our interview.
AB: I'm sure you've been through a lot these past couple weeks, months. I don't know if this is too personal of a question, but how are you doing?
JWW: I appreciate that. It's been a crazy month or so. I'm doing okay. Thank you. I think the hardest part, just personally, of an experience like this is kind of the sudden isolation you go through when you are part of a team and part of an organization, and then you're suddenly not. I miss my team a lot. I miss connection to the work, and I certainly plan to stay connected to this work. But yeah, on a personal level, it's been challenging, not to mention the stress of sort of figuring out, okay, what's next in your life, just all the things that go along with that.
AB: Let's back up to how you ended up at Caltrans. So you previously worked for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. You later became policy director for the California Bicycle Coalition — two jobs that I'm guessing were very much on the outside of Caltrans, maybe trying to push it in a particular direction. So what led to your decision to take a job at Caltrans and what did you hope to accomplish working from the inside?
JWW: My Caltrans journey started in the sustainability program. So you're right that I was working outside of Caltrans, very much working on sustainable transportation policy, mostly focused on active transportation, which know the catch all for sort of biking and walking and making streets safer. I had a lot of experience working with Caltrans and other agencies in Sacramento and had an opportunity, I think really a unique opportunity, to sort of move that work inside of government. At the time, you know this was six years ago, Caltrans was just starting to build a sustainability program. And that grew out of some Caltrans reform efforts that had been led by the transportation secretary at the time. And the sustainability program was really intended to kind of help Caltrans pivot towards a greater focus on climate change, equity. How do we make transportation more sustainable in the era of climate change? And the deputy at the time, the deputy director of sustainability, her name was Ellen Greenberg, she really reached out to me and said, hey, I need, you know, some strong outside perspective to help build this program. So I thought if there's ever an opportunity to work inside government doing what I really care about, this is it. We worked together building the sustainability program inside Caltrans, which is now really a key change focused area inside Caltrans. Yeah, and over a couple of years, I really grew in my role into a leader and had the opportunity to promote into an executive job about three years ago.
AB: Yeah, so you started in 2017 as Sustainability Program manager. In 2020 you were promoted to Deputy Director for Planning and modal programs. So what kind of work were you actually doing on the inside?
JWW: I mean, it's very broad, especially my deputy role. I actually had five pretty major divisions under me in the headquarters in Sacramento, including the research program, including the Rail and Transit program, including the Division of Local Assistance, which is the division that's responsible for supporting local agencies, cities and counties, and helps them get access to their state and federal funding. So lots of responsibility in that program. But I like to sort of think about it or describe it more generally as the program within the department that's really responsible for looking ahead into the future. Planning long term for how the state is going to grow, needs to change, needs to respond to things like climate change, which are major challenges, major disruptors to our state and how we live, and then how the system needs to evolve to respond to the changes coming in the future. And so it really is about setting policy and setting Caltrans in a direction of change, of adapting to the constraints and the challenges in the future. I was vocal about that. I took that job really seriously. It's something I'm super passionate about and have been. Of course, I came from advocacy, so I definitely am motivated by a mission and a passion for making transportation better in the public interest.
AB: Let's talk about your whistleblower complaint. So it has to do with this segment of Interstate 80 west of Sacramento. And if I could try and boil it down in the simplest terms, you allege that Caltrans is or was using state funds that are meant for freeway maintenance, so just keeping the freeways in a state of good repair, to kind of on the sly, actually widen this segment of the freeway with new lanes. Not widening in terms of building a larger structure, but rather repaving and restriping the freeway, taking space from the median and the shoulder to ultimately just add capacity, add additional lanes. And typically this type of expansion would require an environmental impact report that looks at how much additional driving this project would cause and then ways to mitigate for those impacts of increased driving. Am I getting this right so far?
JWW: Yeah, for the most part. I mean, it's pretty nuanced. So the project is described as a pavement rehabilitation project. So you're right to sort of describe that as repaving. You're out there fixing the pavement and just putting it back the way it is. And in fact, several miles of this ten mile section that's being rehabbed or repaved is being widened. The pavement itself is being widened significantly into the median to accommodate future lanes. Now the project cannot actually restripe new lanes. The outcome, finished product of this project cannot be new lanes, but there is a second project which is in the works and that is the one that does intend to add new lanes, is doing an environmental impact statement on the new lanes. And the project that is the first project, the rehab project that's underway is essentially paving the way for that second project. And the second part of the concern that I raised is know under our environmental law, under both CEQA and NEPA, which is the federal version of the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires us to do an impact statement when there are significant impacts, you can't break a big project up into smaller projects to sort of try to hide the impact of what you're doing. And that was also a concern in this case because there are two projects in the identical location, and the first one the public has not had the chance to weigh in on through the environmental process, which is also a concern. Just in terms of transparency, but also in terms of disclosure and the public being able to say whether or not this is a project that they want.
AB: Was this type of maybe call it fudging the rules to get around environmental laws something that you ever saw Caltrans doing before you actually worked at the agency?
JWW: I will say there's a lot of inertia at Caltrans around widening the system, continuing to find ways to grow the system. Often that is couched in terms of a safety project, improving safety or improving the operations of a freeway segment. And so there is a lot of creativity because the primary program that Caltrans funds these sort of projects under does include things like safety and things like operations. Even though it doesn't say — it says you can't add a new traffic lane to the system, it does say you can do safety projects, you can do operational projects. So there's quite a bit of room, gray area, in terms of how Caltrans uses widening to achieve goals that are included under a rehab program. So I would say I had questioned that often because I did feel like we were going beyond what could just be often framed as things that were eligible under this program and used the funds often for more than just rehab and to widen freeways in ways that weren't going to have sustainable public benefits. And I think that's the bigger issue is are these things being done truly in the public interest or are we just building to build and continue to widening freeways because that's what we're used to.
AB: After the break, we talk about the benefits — and limitations — of the environmental laws Jeanie says this freeway project is breaking. And we talk about how, despite all our hopes and dreams, public transit does not reduce rush hour traffic on our freeways. Stay tuned.
AB: We're back with more of my interview with Caltrans whistleblower Jeanie Ward-Waller.
AB: So let's say that Caltrans chose to actually do an environmental impact report on this de facto widening of Interstate 80. Ultimately, what that report would do is just analyze the impacts, but the agency could still make a policy decision about choosing to go forward and widen the freeway. How would an environmental impact report actually make this project more sustainable if it's still fully within Caltrans's authority to just go ahead and widen the freeway?
JWW: Yeah, you're absolutely right. And I want to make something really clear about what an environmental impact statement does and what the environmental process required under CEQA, under our biomarker laws, is really about disclosure and an opportunity for the public to have input to the process. So it's not just Caltrans going and doing a technical analysis and then ultimately deciding what's best. It's Caltrans doing a technical analysis and then putting that out to the public and letting the public know, this is the potential impact of a project like this. And you also have to look at alternatives. You have to truly entertain what are other things that we could do out here to make a benefit, and do those have less environmental impact than what might be the preferred alternative and then give the public an opportunity to comment. And so I think that disclosure, that opportunity for transparency to the public about what we may do and what the impacts are, and then letting the public weigh in, is almost the most important part of that environmental environmental process. And in this case, that's part of what I was raising concerns about. We're not being honest with the public about what we're doing out there. There will be environmental impacts from putting more pavement out there, whether or not we ultimately stripe a new lane. And the public deserves to have an opinion about that. And in this case, at least with the project that's under construction today, there was not a disclosure because what Caltrans did was went through an exemption process from doing an environmental impact statement at all.
AB: One argument that I hear from progressives sometimes is that the solution to congestion on freeways is public transit. So if people can take a bus or a train instead of driving, then that will free up space on the freeways and traffic will go faster. But wouldn't the laws of induced demand apply to that situation too? So every bit of freeway space is always going to get backfilled by more traffic, even if it's public transit and the decrease in cars on the road that is freeing up that capacity at the same time.
JWW: Yeah, that's exactly right. Having more transit, having more options for people doesn't eliminate congestion. And we shouldn't promise that. You have cities where public transit is used by 40% of people, like New York City or London or other parts of the world where public transit systems work incredibly well, and you still have congestion in those cities. We're not going to get rid of congestion because congestion is a sign of economic activity and a really thriving city. But what you do do is give people options. If they don't want to sit in traffic, if they don't want to sit in their own vehicle, they can have a superior option. Essentially opting out of congestion or opting out of paying a toll on the road by being in a train or a bus or having some other way to get to their destination. And so that's really the goal is to allow people to opt out with other options.
AB: So if this is the case, then that if this is the case that adding public transit services can free up some capacity on the freeway, but that's ultimately just going to lead to more driving anyway... Do you think that it's possible for California to meet its climate goals and reduce the amount of miles that are driven on our roads and freeways without actually pruning back the freeway network somewhat, either by reducing the number of lanes on the freeways that are open to cars or fully decommissioning a freeway?
JWW: Yeah, that's a really good question. It's an interesting way to think about it. Our climate change plans for this state do require us to actually reduce the amount of driving from today. I think that's a really hard problem. There are a lot of things that we are doing today that if we do, a lot more of people will have other options. And so I think it's not just about the most congested time on the freeway and those work trips and that commute time, but it is about all the other daily trips that you take in your day, and most trips in the state are under a couple of miles. And those are trips that can easily be accomplished by walking or riding a bike or some other form of transportation, right? That doesn't have to involve getting in your car. We do need our streets to be a lot safer and we need people to have destinations that they want to get to close to their home. So there are still complex solutions to those problems too. But it doesn't just have to be the congested trips that we're focused on, right? It's every trip is an opportunity to reduce driving and to make other choices.
AB: A big grounding factor that I try and use in my reporting is the California Air Resources Board Scoping plan. So for the benefit of our listeners, a state regulatory agency has laid out a roadmap for how California could achieve its goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. And it determined that basically the average number of miles that Californian puts on their car each year has to go down by 25% by 2030. So seven years from now. I've said this before on this podcast. I sense a real lack of urgency on the part of pretty much everyone when it comes to planning for a change of that scale. Do you feel that urgency yourself and do you think that that urgency is felt widely at Caltrans, particularly among the top leaders?
JWW: I feel that urgency, but I would say that no, I don't think most people understand what that means. There are a lot of policy priorities at Caltrans, right. And of course the scoping plan is the state's climate change plan, but Caltrans is also being asked to do many other things. So I think there's a strong tension between what we do to advance our climate goals and what we do to meet all the other things that are being asked of the agency. And so I don't think that the mandate to reduce driving is the top priority amongst all the others. And it's also not what a legacy agency has done for its entire existence. Right? Like, Caltrans is an agency that was literally created to build the highway system in California, to build the freeways in California. And it's been wildly successful at it for its entire existence and rebuilding segments that were destroyed by earthquakes. And just building and expanding the highway system is what Caltrans has done. So it's really hard to turn that chip, and just having climate goals, I think a lot of people can be convinced by the narrative that, like, well, electric vehicles will probably fix that problem, right. Or we're investing a bunch in transit, so shouldn't that eventually fix it and people will make other decisions? I think the sort of system level understanding of what it is going to take to actually reduce driving, as you're describing, I think, is not well understood. There are only, like, a few planners and folks that are really on that side of the agency, as I described, that are looking into the future and understand kind of systemically what the issues are that feel the urgency.
AB: I've learned a lot about Caltrans and the history of the agency since working on this podcast, and one observation that I have is that it seems to be an institution that's historically been dominated by engineers. And engineers have a very particular approach to problem solving in transportation that may differ from, say, an economist or a city planner or people from other disciplines. Am I onto something here? I know you're an engineer by trade. Is Caltrans run by engineers? And if so, do you see that as problematic?
JWW: Yes, you are definitely onto something. And yes, Caltrans is run by engineers. So short answer is yes to all those things. I think just to get inside the engineer brain a little bit, engineers are trained to — first thing you do is you put boundaries around your problem. What is the problem you're trying to solve? Let me draw boundaries around that. And historically, you pick your post miles, right? Like, you pick a little segment of freeway, like mile one to mile three. That is where I'm trying to solve the problem. That's where I see congestion or that's where I see a safety issue. That's where the bridge needs to be repaired. And you're not looking at the land use, right? That's all just blank space on the map. You are looking at the construction drawings that just represent the physical structure of the freeway. So the boundaries of your problem are very clearly designed and prescribed, and they're not including the whole system, right? You're not thinking about the reverberating effects of, like, well, if I fix this one segment where it's congested, am I just going to move the congestion 2 miles down the road?
Or how is that going to affect people in the neighborhood right next to the freeway? Those issues, like trying to get a lot of the bigger thinking about regional planning and about community impacts and equity and bigger issues. Climate change, of course, is a global issue. It is the biggest of issues. Getting that into the engineering mind is really challenging, and it takes, like, a total rethink, and there's a movement around something called a plangineer. A lot of people increasingly will say, like, I am an engineer by training, but I think like a planner, or, I've also been educated as a planner. I understand both sides. I can speak both languages. And I think that is super important, that people can do both. Engineers, I think, are, like you said, I am one. I trained as an engineer. I worked as an engineer early in my career. I understand how engineers look at problems. But it's holding us back. We've got to be much more systems level thinkers with our transportation system today. And there's a lot more we can do to optimize and make the system more efficient and more effective at moving people that don't require the civil engineer build mindset, which is totally trained to just build more and build bigger.
AB: Still ahead, we talk about the challenges and opportunities with mixing freeways and public transit. I'm Andrew Bowen and you're listening to Freeway Exit.
AB: The most recent episode of Freeway Exit was an interview with the outgoing District Eleven director, Gustavo Dallarda. And one thing that he said is that we need to get better at integrating the freeway network with public transit. This is hard for me to kind of just accept at face value because we have a lot of transit stops in San Diego that are right next to freeways or even on top of a freeway, and they're just really terrible places to be. They're unpleasant, there's fumes, there's noise. Freeways tend to repel pedestrians. And when you're trying to draw people into those spaces and get people to take public transit as opposed to sitting in their car where they have this sort of physical isolation from the world around them, there just seems to be a real… I guess the question is, do you think there is a way to successfully mix public transit and freeways in a way that really draws people in and doesn't repel people?
JWW: Yeah, super interesting question. I think the short answer is yes. I do think the freeways are these massive arteries that bisect urban and suburban communities all over the place. So I think they are assets that we should be using to move public transit more effectively. Public transit also has to cross the freeway all the time, right? So your bus line, even if it never gets on the freeway, it still has to go across. And crossing the freeway is still crossing into Caltrans right of way. So you still have to deal with the sort of freeway environment, even if you're on a local street that's just going over the freeway. So I think yes, absolutely, I agree with Gustavo that we've got to figure out what that integration looks like and how do we really focus on optimizing the movement of buses. Because buses are the high capacity mass transit, that is the way to move more people more effectively on a road network. We have to be looking at where are the buses are stuck in traffic most often, often that is on the freeway, crossing the freeway, it is interaction with the highways where our public transit systems often get super bogged down.
So there's a lot of opportunity there. And it doesn't just have to be a bus only lane, like a lot of people think like, well, you've got to build this whole dedicated bus transit, bus rapid transit system on your roadways. It does not have to be that big of an investment. It can be things like signal timing, it can be smaller operational changes that can be done fairly quickly that would optimize moving the buses. And if the buses are getting out of traffic or moving ahead next to traffic, people are going to see that. Right? That's the most visible way to get people to be like, oh, I could get out of the traffic if I was on the bus over there. That's a superior way to travel. And so that can potentially attract a lot of people to using transit.
AB: Yeah. On the one hand, I see there's this enormous potential with our freeways because there was a policy decision made decades ago that they should go through the center of cities and freeways should go through the densely populated neighborhoods in our cities so that people can go right there. Obviously, that created a lot of social and environmental problems, displacement, leaving people with horrible pollution and noise and all these types of quality of life impacts. But it also just seems like it's still hard for me to wrap my head around. How would we use that space that technically goes right to where people are supposed to be going or living and how do we do that in a cost effective way? I'm thinking like, if we can build a transit station, say in downtown San Diego, where I-5 goes right there, we're going to have to probably put a lid over it to make that transit station a place that people would actually want to a place that people would want to spend time in. And freeway lids are just so they're not a scalable solution. They're just exorbitantly expensive. And we don't have enough public dollars, at least at the moment, to do that in all the places where we would need to do that in order to meet our climate goals. I don't even have a question here. I'm just wondering what are your thoughts on that? How do we fix that?
JWW: It is a really big challenge. There's a whole movement now within the transportation industry and there's funding now at the federal level and at the state level to be able to convert freeway spaces. This idea of turning highways back into boulevards or reconnecting communities across freeways. Maybe it's a freeway lid. There's also a project in Oakland, on the 980, in downtown Oakland where they're talking about, can we just take the freeway out entirely and turn it back into a regular local street or some other amenity to the city because it's underutilized. So I think those ideas have a lot of merit. I mean, that is the kind of creative thinking we need to figure out what is the best thing for some communities that have really been damaged and divided by our freeways. But you're right, it is super expensive and I think a lot of solutions are expensive. But I think what I'm trying to raise some attention to is that. There's actually a huge amount of money in transportation right now. There's a federal infrastructure law. There's a lot of state funding. The gas tax was increased in 2017. We have got to make sure that that funding is being used for its intended purpose and as efficiently as possible.
And there's a lot of money that I think could be used better, used more effectively for just the kinds of things you're talking about or for improving public transit, making it more convenient, making it more frequent, making our streets safer for walking and biking. There's fairly simple solutions, just making the sidewalk networks better and making bike paths that don't have to be super expensive, don't have to be a freeway cap that still give people alternatives for some of those short trips. So I think there's a whole lot of things that we could be doing that don't have to be at the scale of a freeway cap, but that can help people choose to travel differently.
AB: On that note of spending dollars most effectively, there have been a couple of efforts in the state legislature to require Caltrans to align its spending with the state's climate goals. The last bill that I can recall on this topic was vetoed by Governor Newsom with the justification that Caltrans is essentially already doing this or it will be soon. Is that true? Is Caltrans aligning its spending with its climate goals?
JWW: I mean we're trying? I was trying, certainly. There are a lot of things in the works and there are a lot of sort of policy level changes that are being made that I think are very slow to work their way through the system. And so I won't say today that every transportation dollar we're spending is aligned with our climate goals. I think that would not be true. But I think Caltrans is making efforts to move in that direction. But those efforts require people like me who are willing to push really hard. And so I think I'm not sure. I think depending on how my situation plays out, where I end up, I question whether that commitment continues with Caltrans in the future just because it does require people working against the tide. The tide is to continue to build freeways. That's what Caltrans is good at doing and what has historically done. So there are going to have to be a lot of folks who are committed to those climate goals, empowered internally to really make that statement true.
AB: What have you learned since going public with your claims?
JWW: I've learned that there's a huge amount of interest in this issue. I think just the media inquiries that I've received and the opportunities I've had to sort of tell my story. I've been pleasantly surprised that there's a lot of interest. This is an issue that I think people are interested in and care about a lot. And I don't think we've done a good enough job of educating the public and being out there and telling this story. So I really appreciate having this conversation with you and kind of going in depth on some of the issues, because they are complex, they're not straightforward, and you can't expect everyone every day interacts with transportation. Everybody has sort of their behind the windshield theory of what you can do to make transportation better. But the reality is that you need folks who really have expertise and passion to be out there helping the public understand what the real solutions are. And so I'm pleased that there's really been an audience and an interest in the issues that I'm fighting for. And, yeah, I hope that it helps us make some progress.
AB: Our thanks to Jeanie Ward-Waller for coming on the podcast and sharing her story. For the record, Caltrans has been pretty tight lipped on Jeanie's case. It told the LA Times: “Caltrans takes the allegations seriously and will cooperate with any independent investigation into these claims. In addition, Caltrans does not comment on personnel matters.” Freeway Exit is produced by me, Andrew Bowen, and is edited by Brooke Ruth. If you're in San Diego, you've probably seen the news that our largest daily newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, was recently bought by a hedge fund, Alden Global Capital. It's notorious for cutting jobs to maximize profits for their shareholders. KPBS is a nonprofit news organization funded mostly by donations from listeners like you. Our democracy — even our planet — depends on the kind of smart, independent journalism that KPBS is really good at. If you want to support the show, go to KPBS.org and click the blue "Give now" button at the top of the page. And give the podcast a shoutout in the comments at checkout. Thanks for donating, and thanks for listening!