Concerns Over States Allegedly Misusing Funds for Sustainable Infrastructure

  • Editorial Team
  • News
  • 17 October 2023

A recent reorganization at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) has raised questions about whether states are diverting funds meant for sustainable infrastructure projects towards highway expansions. The abrupt firing of an important official and allegations of misclassification of environmental implications in construction projects have sparked concerns about the misuse of funds meant for multimodal and sustainable initiatives.

The California Department of Transportation Shake-Up 

In September, Caltrans dismissed Jeanie Ward-Waller, the deputy director of planning and modal programs, in what appeared to be a demotion within the organization. It was revealed that her opposition to highway expansion projects played a big role in her demotion. Just three weeks after she indicated her intention to file a whistleblower complaint regarding potential environmental violations in road construction projects in the Sacramento area, she was reassigned.

Ward-Waller’s Role and Concerns 

As the deputy director of planning, Ward-Waller had quite an influence over Caltrans’ long-term plans, policies, and strategies. Caltrans oversees all state highways and manages federal and state transportation funding, including allocations for rail, bike lanes, pedestrian paths, and roads. Ward-Waller’s objections stemmed from her belief that Caltrans’ state and federal permits incorrectly classified and underestimated the environmental impacts of two construction projects on Highway 80.

Nationwide Implications 

The situation in California raises a broader question. Are similar actions being taken by states across the nation? California, often seen as a progressive state in terms of environmental policies, possibly disregarding regulations may indicate a larger pattern. If so, legislative efforts to promote sustainability, enhance multimodal transportation options, and address climate change effects could be undermined. This means leaving the public unaware of their elected officials’ actions.

The Involved Projects 

The focus of concern lies in two transportation projects on the YOLO Causeway, an elevated road connecting Davis and Sacramento that crosses the Yolo Bypass, a wildlife refuge.

Project Mislabeling and the Funds Misuse 

Ward-Waller’s complaint, filed on September 16, alleges that Caltrans intentionally mislabeled the first project, initiated in August, as “pavement maintenance” while it actually was intended to widen the road for new lanes. This misclassification potentially allowed state funds, designated for maintenance rather than expansion, to be unlawfully used. Plus, dividing the projects into smaller segments expedited permitting, bypassing evaluations required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). These laws mandate environmental impact assessments and disclosure.

Objections and the Complaint 

Ward Waller began expressing her concerns in July and met with Michael Keever, chief deputy director of Caltrans, on August 16. She proposed an external audit request. Following her demotion on September 14, she formally filed a whistleblower complaint on September 16. Two more projects in the same area, allegedly misusing maintenance funds for road expansion, were mentioned in her complaint.

Caltrans’ Response 

Caltrans has not publicly commented on these allegations, leaving questions unanswered about the agency’s stance on the matter.

The outcome of this situation could have implications not only for California but also for similar projects and practices nationwide, affecting efforts to combat climate change and promote environmental sustainability.