Another Way California Wastes Taxpayer Dollars

Golden state lawmakers ignore real problems while spending precious time and money renaming highways.

California legislators never have enough time, and always lack the vision, to deal appropriately with the state’s pressing budget and infrastructure problems. But they are great at self-aggrandizement and at catering to the special-interest groups that assure their re-election.

One would think, for instance, the Assembly Transportation Committee would be deeply concerned with the massive predicted cost overruns for the proposed High Speed Rail system, or with planning cost-effective ways to meet the transportation needs of a growing population. Yet the committee spends nearly a third of its time on a task that few readers would consider of vital importance: naming highways.

California highways already have real names. We know that the 55 Freeway, also known as the Costa Mesa Freeway, goes from the Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach to the intersection of the 91, or Riverside Freeway, in Anaheim. It’s clear that 99—central and northern Californians don’t use “the” before referring to their freeways—cuts through the urbanized regions of the Central Valley.

But you can’t drive far on any freeway in California without seeing signs referring to the “Joe Colla Interchange” or the “Eric W. Rood Memorial Expressway.” Such freeway namings, which only confuse drivers because the routes aren’t really referred to by those names in atlases and GPS systems, have become so profligate that I’ve seen memorial highway signs with multiple names on each sign.

The signs are paid for with private donations, but the Assembly estimates that it costs between $15,000 and $30,000 in Caltrans staff time for every member highway resolution that is approved. “It’s gone crazy,” said Assemblyman Chris Norby (R-Fullerton), who introduced AB 595, which would have placed a two-year moratorium “on any naming of highways or posting signs by act of the Legislature.” Local governments would still be free to name roadways.

“I don’t think it’s the best way to honor any Californian,” Norby added in an interview last week. “No one knows who it is.”

I did some Internet searching and learned that Eric W. Rood was a Nevada County supervisor. I learned from a Facebook site that in 1976 former San Jose City Councilman Joe Colla “hoisted a car to the top of [an] incomplete [interchange] ramp to symbolize the folly of it all… He then had a helicopter drop him on top to take a picture...which was flashed around the country and brought attention to California’s budget problems and unfinished freeways.”

That actually seems like one of the more appropriate road namings given that Colla helped that interchange get funded, but mostly the roads are named after living and deceased politicians and police officers killed in the line of duty, which is why a police lobbyist opposed the legislation. But, as Norby said, this is no way to honor people. One doesn’t drive onto a freeway to observe a memorial. One ought not to have to search the Internet to learn anything about these people. In his home city, private citizens created an actual memorial for one officer who was killed years ago, which is a more meaningful way to honor someone.

Almost all of the namings are for men, which led the National Organization for Women to testify in favor of Norby’s bill. It’s odd that the namings go overwhelmingly to government officials, as if no other Californians are worthy of honor. This is just a way for legislators to curry favor. It’s a cheap way—for the politician, although not for the taxpayer -- to score points. It’s a great excuse to give a speech. Until this proposed bill, there was nary a peep of opposition from anyone. Who isn’t going to vote “yes” to create the “Greatest Generation Memorial Highway,” although it’s hard to understand how that does any justice to any member of that generation.

Practically speaking, the plethora of signs creates a distraction. The Sacramento Bee reported that there are 246 pages on the Caltrans Web site listing named infrastructure projects. There are more than 1,000 such signs and the number keeps doubling every 10 years. It’s basically a meaningless gesture, and one that takes legitimate time away from more important business.

Furthermore, the naming situation violates a clear Caltrans policy established in 1963. According to Caltrans, freeway naming should be done solely by the Highway Commission and “naming should be provided on the basis of motorists’ needs.” That’s a crucial point, but how often are the needs of taxpayers or mere citizens the basis for doing anything in the Legislature? If anything, this process works against the clear driving needs of California drivers.

Caltrans also suggests the use of historical or geographic names, the use of a single name for an entire span of freeway, and argues that “memorial names should be avoided.” But Caltrans notes accurately: “Of course, the Legislature being the Legislature ignored the recommendation.” And it will continue to ignore the recommendation. The moratorium bill needed eight votes to move it out of committee but could only get five. This isn’t a big deal, I suppose. In the scheme of things, the costs imposed mean nothing in comparison to, say, the amount of money California squanders on its duplicative commissions, excessive pensions, and massive welfare programs. But sometimes the little things provide deep insight into bigger problems.

The bigger problem is that the Legislature continues to conduct business as usual, nearly oblivious to the looming budget, regulatory, and economic problems that grow each day. The bigger issue is that the Legislature is so beholden to interest groups that it cannot even approve the most modest reform in its behavior. The bigger deal is that there is no hope that any of this—or any of the Legislature’s far more significant dysfunctional behavior—will ever change.

Maybe we should just rename Interstate 5, the Road to Fiscal Ruin and be done with it.

Steven Greenhut is the editor of CalWatchDog.com.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Tim||

  • old fart||

    most of the memorial names I've seen are for dead cops. I think north of LA around Santa Clarita there is a sign with 4 or 5 cops on it, that were killed the northridge earthquake.

  • juris imprudent||

    For gawdsakes man, they aren't fucking us over when they do this - by all means let them spend their energies on such trivialities!

  • Radioactive||

    seems like a pretty expensive way to keep them off the streets and away from the schoolyards

  • nobody||

    OT, but goddamnit!

    Nate Silver shows Ron Paul at 19.1% in South Carolina! He was at 11% on Wednesday.

    It's getting incredibly difficult to keep my hope bottled up.

  • ||

    Wow that ARG polls shows him at 20%. There's a PPP poll coming out today, which is more reliable. I'd like to see it confirm those awesome numbers.

  • ||

    Holy shit, Joe, I hope you're right and my hopes haven't been raised only to be disappointed! I will HAUNT YOU FOREVER if they have! I swear it! Really!

  • ||

    I will haunt myself.

  • Paul||

    Golden state lawmakers ignore real problems while spending precious time and money renaming highways.

    It's an unfortunate byproduct of living in a progressive state or district. Symbols become very important.

    King County was "reimagined" as Martin Luther King County-- the originating name of the county having absolutely nothing to do with Martin Luther King-- at the tune of god knows how much. They had to change the logo on every building, every letterhead, every truck and vehicle... fuck knows how much all that cost. And for what?

  • ||

    At the same time, notably, that they were begging hard for corporate welfare to fund the construction of not one, but two identical sports stadiums, right next door to each other.

    If the KC council manages their personal budgets only half as badly as they do the County's budget, they probably have FICO scores of around 440.

  • ||

    Empire Way was so boring, Paul. MLK Way is much more pointless.

  • Radioactive||

    my way or the highWay?

  • Colonel_Angus||

    There should be a Rodney King Drive or something like that. Highway.

  • ||

    You could name a residential street Rodney King Drive but the speed limit would have to be 80 mph.

  • Doctor Whom||

    It's not just progressive states or districts. The decidedly non-progressive central part of Virginia is full of freeway overpasses named after state troopers.

  • Paul||

    Meh, I suppose. But after living in a progressive district for the last 20+ years and watching all the city council theater of passing resolutions to condemn this or that nasty thing happening on the other side of the globe, I figure that symbolic gestures are more common than in non-progressive ones.

    Maybe I'll spend my retirement years in a red state and be shocked to find the same.

    Serious question: What would a red-state city council spend a week debating to condemn? Gay marriage?

  • ||

    People that vote.

  • ||

    MSDNC claptrap. They debate how to stop people that vote illegally. Unfortunately the US AG Erik (gun runner) Holder works against them for obvious reasons.

  • ||

    Virginia has a balanced budget.

    California needs 24 billion from Obo to pay all those bloated public unions and welfare for all those mexicans

  • Rhywun||

    King County was "reimagined" as Martin Luther King County

    I thought this was a joke but Wikipedia seems to agree with you. Wow.

  • Kromulent Kristen||

    They could make big bucks by selling the naming rights.

    How does "The Jacket Expressway" sound? We could buy that!

  • ||

    The Jacket doesn't buy what the Jacket wants. Whatever the Jacket wants, becomes the Jacket's.

  • Kromulent Kristen||

    Here - this lonely stretch of highway could use some love. The Jacket Expressway, it is!

  • Colonel_Angus||

    That's already Val Kilmer's unofficial highway.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    From out of town huh? What you got in the trunk?
    Oh... You don't want to look in there.

  • ||

    Maybe we could take care of this here in... where the hell are we?

  • ||

    Is anybody else absolutely dumbfounded by how fluid governments (more specifically, legislatures) are in this country today? There's no limits, barriers, impediments to anything -- they can legislate the living shit out of absolutely ANYTHING.

    As for California, even people in Sacramento hates those fuckers in the Assembly, and when run-of-the-mill progressives think politicians of their own ilk suck, you know something's seriously fucked up.

  • Radioactive||

    make them hold their sessions in the nude, that ought to slow them down...

  • Colonel_Angus||

    Highways should be numbered, and given names telling you where they go. Like Elgin-O'hare.

  • ||

    "The People's Democratic Socialist Republic of California Highway 324B" sounds better, right?

  • Mash||

    I’m English and having read the book “ Boomerang” by Michael Lewis and I was amazed by what went on in California.

    I have lent it to a few people who would describe themselves as leftwing and they have all said that they now understand what the ‘Tea party’ are about.

  • ||

    Thanks for the tip, good sir.

  • ||

    Late nineties, early aughts the Republicans in Florida renamed everything in sight after Ronald Reagan.

    It got to the point that I was surprised they didn't change the name of the state to Reagan.

  • ||

    Chris Norby was a Fullerton City Council member (Home of the Kelly Thomas murder). He talked himself up as having strong libertarian principles.

    The city has a large parcel of former oil producing land within its boundaries that Chevron Corp has been trying to develop into residential for more than 15 years. There is a strong opposition to the development within the city. On at least three separate occasions Chevron and the city negotiated deals involving open space, density, traffic, etc. (years of planning and negotiation). In each case, in the last step of approval, the deals were shot down by the Fullerton City Council. In all cases Chevron was a willing participant to the negotiations and strongly supported passage of the zoning variations needed to move the developments forward.

    The last attempt Chris Norby was on the City Council. The prior councils had all been split 3 to 2 against. With libertarian Norby on board it looked like action would pass this time. Not so, libertarian Norby voted against the residential development with his stated reason being that he considered the city to have taken undue advantage of Chevron in the negotiations. In other words, libertarian Norby said he voted against the plan that Chevron Corp wished to see passed because Norby felt the city was taking advantage of Chevron.

    That vote made Norby popular with many in the city. Shortly thereafter he leapfrogged up to a county supervisor position and now he is in the state assembly (its been only about two years). Chris Norby will say or do anything that gets him elected to higher office. I expect him to go far.

  • ||

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  • ||

    You're all a riot. Your sense of humor is keeping you afloat. Eventually Calif. will bankrupt itself and things will change for the better.

  • Alex Marin ||

    Higher taxes on Kim Kardashian are not the solution http://goo.gl/6mRQX

  • ||

    Considering how bad the CA legislature is and how ruinous their legilating is for CA, maybe naming signs is not really a waste of time. As a CA resident, it is amazing to me how fast this state is going down and how the people just do not seem to care, shown in part by electing the legislators who are ruining a great state. So, let them name signs. In fact, make that there only task and leave the rest of us alone.

  • steam||

    I don't think California will be leaving the rest of us alone for much longer. They'll need us soon. For reference see; the European Union

  • ||

    This is a bit off-subject but take a look at the photo used with this article. While it's mentioned that highways can be named after police officers killed in the line of duty, I'd bet money (my own, not California's) this photo came from an episode of C^H^I^P^S -- it's not even a real policeman.

  • fadeinlight||

    I've been thinking the exact same thing. I wish they would stop naming the freeways--but if they must, I would rather they named them after the people that -paid- for them. "Google" Way, or "Wal-Mart" Lane, or even "Larry Ellison" Blvd. These politicians spend -our- money glorifying themselves and others in the public sector--it's absolutely disgusting.

  • ||

    The 55 Freeway does not extend south to Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach; instead, it ceases to be a freeway in Costa Mesa and becomes a surface street before it enters Newport Beach. Greenhut, having worked for the Orange County Register, should know that.

  • ||

    Greenhut knows. We all know the 55 ends in Costa Mesa.

  • ||

    The best memorial sign I ever saw in California was one near my home in
    Riverside dedicating a sewage treatment plant to a California politician as the "(I can't remember the person's name anymore) Memorial Waste Water Treatment Plant" Both an appropriate and dubious honor for many of our state politicians.

  • ||

    There's nothing progressive about California. It once was progressive. That was when "progress" included more roads, freeways, water projects, dams, offshore oil rigs, farmland reclamation and nuclear power. California is not progressive. It is regressive.

  • ||

    I take it the F word is allowed here. Pathetic. I seems like this place is left-wing loony. Am I wrong?

    As far as the subject of this article, Cali is a just a foreign country at this point.

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