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Caltrans “Shakeup” Is a Bad Sign

Why was one of Caltrans' most staunch advocates for sanity within Caltrans "reassigned"?

Jeanie Ward-Waller, middle, with then-Caltrans Director Laurie Berman, left. Photo by Melanie Curry/ Streetsblog

Politico reports that Caltrans' Deputy Director of Planning and Modal Programs, Jeanie Ward-Waller, is being "reassigned" in the department. Politico is calling the move a "shakeup."

Let's name it more precisely: Jeanie Ward-Waller, advocate for safety, sustainability, and sanity in Caltrans planning, has been fired from her job of overseeing Caltrans' stated mission to "provide a safe and reliable transportation network that serves all people and respects the environment." Regular Streetsblog readers may remember that before she worked at Caltrans, Ward-Waller served as Advocacy Director at the California Bicycle Coalition. There, she was an active and consistent voice for transportation funding transparency and for increasing funding and improving infrastructure for people on bikes and on foot.

When she was hired to head up the new sustainability program at Caltrans headquarters, there was good reason for advocates to celebrate. Caltrans had recently been brought to heel by Governor Brown, undergone a strategic planning process wherein it acknowledged its job was transportation for everyone, not just people in cars and on highways, and was in the process of rethinking its entire approach to transportation. Ward-Waller helped build a new sustainability division at Caltrans headquarters, and served in various capacities including as Interim Director of Caltrans District 2.

Her job as Deputy Director of Planning and Modal Programs was to help Caltrans implement directives from the Governor and from the State Transportation Agency (CalSTA), including the incorporation of the Climate Action Plan for Transportation Investment (CAPTI) into Caltrans' wide-ranging work.

She served under three Caltrans Directors with no indication that her performance was lacking. Caltrans said they won't comment on personnel matters.

But it is too easy to speculate that she may have been removed because she was a strong advocate for change. CAPTI, for example, makes it very clear that continuing to widen highways is the wrong way to improve transportation or to fight climate change. But some Caltrans planners are still pushing strategies to get around changing state regulations, including ones that place strict limits on using state funds to add capacity. In L.A., Metro and District 7 are dividing up freeway projects into short "auxiliary lane" segments to skirt the rules. There are tensions in District 3 (Sacramento) about whether State Highway Operations and Protection Program (SHOPP) funds are being used to widen highways, which they are not supposed to be.

It has been part of Ward-Waller's job to call out these kinds of potential conflicts.

One of her tasks was to assist the department on its response to a letter sent to Caltrans by Assemblymember Laura Friedman in August of last year [PDF]. That letter requested data necessary for understanding how and where roads and lanes are being widened and added, and for estimating how much more driving is happening in the state. In February, Caltrans then-media relations director Will Arnold asked Streetsblog to hold off writing about the topic, as "an announcement would be coming soon." No announcement came. The letter remains unanswered. Ward-Waller has confirmed that the information exists, but Caltrans never gave clearance to release the data.

Assemblymember Friedman has since co-authored a bill with Senator Lena Gonzalez to require Caltrans to publicly report this information - a bill currently awaiting its fate on Governor Newsom's desk.

The timing is notable for another reason as well. Ward-Waller is a new mom who just requested family leave to bond with her daughter.

This firing is a loss for sustainable transportation advocates, a loss for the remaining sustainability team inside Caltrans, and a loss for California. It's also an important reminder of just how fragile are the hard-fought gains made by sustainable transportation advocates in the past few years.

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