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.