By Andrew McIntosh
Published: Saturday, Dec. 19, 2009 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

More than 12 percent of the 2,667 new vehicles that Caltrans has bought since 2007 are sitting unused and gathering dust on state lots, according to newly released data confirmed by the department.

Caltrans officials say that after they buy new vehicles and trucks, their department takes up to three years to assemble various components for their custom-designed light- and heavy-duty trucks in Sacramento before they actually hit the road.

The department also says state-mandated furloughs have cut the staff’s ability to complete orders at the Sacramento assembly plant by 15 percent.

The new data, which emerged during a legislative hearing this week, stunned some lawmakers.

“It’s insanity. It’s all cost and no benefit,” said Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-San Fernando Valley, whose Assembly budget committee on transportation unearthed the information.

Blumenfield’s Assembly Budget subcommittee on transportation looked into how Caltrans buys and manages its large fleet of cars, trucks and accessories after a Bee investigative report this fall.

The Bee told how Caltrans had spent more than $4 million on vehicles that were parked and undeployed for months, and in some cases, years, while lawmakers slashed state workers’ pay and eliminated key public services to erase deficits after tax revenue plunged.

Blumenfield cited taxpayer outrage as the reason his committee decided to dig further into the Caltrans deals, saying it’s part of a new push by legislators to increase their oversight of key state departments, programs and spending of public money.

He and Republican legislators used the vehicle data to grill Caltrans Director Randell Iwasaki about his department’s vehicle purchases – and conference spending at glamorous resorts – at a Wednesday hearing.

“The broad image is that Caltrans is a bit schizophrenic when it comes to fleet management,” Blumenfield told Iwasaki. “It just seems like sometimes you’re in this auto consumption mode.”

A report prepared by Blumenfield’s committee revealed that 319 of the 2,667 vehicles Caltrans has bought since 2007 are waiting to be assembled. Another 5 percent are assembled and waiting to be deployed.

Caltrans media relations manager Matt Rocco said the figures are accurate. He declined to comment further.

Iwasaki described a multiyear delay in assembling big Caltrans tow trucks that work on Bay Area bridges, saying the delays were now “resolved.”

The Bee probe found that the problems went well beyond tow trucks, however.

Using Caltrans purchasing and vehicle registration records, The Bee found three new Ford pickup trucks sitting on a Caltrans lot that were delivered in April 2008. Three more identical trucks were bought in May 2009, while the 2008 vehicles sat unused.

Blumenfield said he was outraged, vowing legislators will address such spending in the next state budget.

“How does that jibe with the realities of today’s economy and how do you sit there (at the committee meeting) with a straight face? Yet they did,” he added.

Blumenfield told Iwasaki that the report about millions of dollars’ worth of parked trucks, which was picked up by ABC News, and a separate CBS News 13 exposé about $82,000 spent on a conference at a desert golf resort, have left taxpayers with legitimate questions about oversight of the department’s budget.

Caltrans is unique in state government because it has authority to purchase vehicles for its own fleet, which includes more than 13,000 vehicles and other pieces of equipment. Other departments must buy their cars through the Department of General Services.

Iwasaki – a veteran engineer who took Caltrans’ top job on Aug. 1 – said his department has faced several challenges on the fleet management front, including the furloughs and new state Air Resources Board emissions regulations for trucks that carry a Dec. 31 deadline.

Iwasaki said vehicle assembly work has been delayed while the department rushes to retrofit trucks with pollution-control devices to comply with the new air regulations or risk fines of $1,000 a day.

“We’re racing to meet the deadline,” Iwasaki said.

Under questioning by Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, vice chairman of the Assembly’s Transportation Committee, Iwasaki acknowledged that Caltrans’ budget had been boosted by the Schwarzenegger administration to help meet the new air requirements.

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