EDITORIAL: Bay Bridge project troubles trigger Caltrans' examination

But will the review be thorough, independent?

As the troubled Bay Bridge project nears completion -- some $5 billion over budget and a decade late -- Gov. Jerry Brown has belatedly ordered an independent external review of operations within the state Department of Transportation.

The State Smart Transportation Initiative, a 19-state sponsored transportation research center housed at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has been hired to conduct the review.

As outlined in a news release, the review looks comprehensive. But the governor proposes to spend just $270,000 for it. That's not enough for an in-depth examination of a troubled state government enterprise with more than 21,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $12 billion.

Brian Kelly, acting secretary of business, transportation and housing, who along with the governor ordered the review and will oversee it, says that an academic institution was selected because it will be more cost-effective than a private firm.

While the news release promises SSTI will conduct an "independent external review," the constraints on the researchers call into question just how independent their review will be. For example, the contract requires SSTI "to meet biweekly either in person or by telephone" with officials at the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency and the Caltrans project manager. Briefings will include but are not limited to "meetings" and "interviews" contractors conduct with BT&H, Caltrans and other key stakeholders.

Such tight oversight could have a chilling effect. Knowing that their conversations will be reported back to top Caltrans officials, how candid will department employees or private contractors be?

The contract also bars SSTI from issuing "any news releases" without Caltrans' written permission. The tight news blackout is worrisomely reminiscent of Caltrans' obfuscation of the many construction mishaps surrounding its massive Bay Bridge construction project.

Kelly says he has been frustrated himself by ineffective communications from Caltrans. At the end of the day, he promises the SSTI review "will be very public."

An in-depth review of Caltrans management is long overdue. If Kelly can deliver what he promises, the public will be well served.