Laurie Berman

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) named on Feb. 23 Laurie Berman, a veteran California Dept. of Transportation (Caltrans) official, as agency director, effective March 3. She was acting chief deputy director since October and a former San Diego district director.

Berman will replace Malcolm Dougherty, who says he is leaving Caltrans for the private sector. Pending state Senate confirmation, Berman will lead an $8.5-billion agency with nearly 20,000 employees.

ENR: What is your first order of business as the new director?

Berman: We’re set in the right direction on delivering SB 1-funded projects across the state. SB 1 will provide California with $54 billion in transportation infrastructure funding over the next 10 years. This money will allow state and local agencies to fix highways and local roads, repair bridges and overpasses, increase access to transit, address congested corridors, and improve goods movement.

With the new influx of SB 1 funds comes an expectation for results. Caltrans has already completed more than a dozen projects and awarded or begun construction on more than 250 projects.

Prior to passage of SB 1, California’s state highways and local roads faced an estimated $139 billion deferred maintenance backlog over the next ten years: state infrastructure was estimated to be around $59 billion while local roads and streets require $80 billion to bring them to optimal safety condition levels. California has the second-highest share of roads in poor condition in the country and one in four of the state’s bridges need to be repaired or replaced.

ENR: Is there a particular project on your radar that you want to get started on ASAP?

Berman: There is no one project, but I am most looking forward to having funding for a proactive maintenance program. I will also continue work toward leading a more modern, efficient and transparent and accountable organization. We are taking a holistic look at how everything we do factors into a larger set of outcomes around economy, livability and environment in addition to the traditional goals of improving mobility.

SB 1 requires that Caltrans implements efficiency measures with the goal of generating at least $100 million annually in savings to invest in maintenance and rehabilitation of the state highway system. At the most recent CTC meeting, we presented our draft “Interim Efficiencies Report," which outlines the efficiencies we will put into place.

ENR: What do you think is the biggest challenge Caltrans is facing in the near future?

Berman: Climate change is already affecting California’s transportation system. It is changing the emergencies we respond to – just look at US Highway 101 in Santa Barbara. It was closed for 12 days due to a massive mudslide this January. And like every DOT in the nation, our staff are retiring at a rapid rate, so we are training our staff and managers, launching new mentorship programs and beefing up our recruitment efforts.

ENR: Is there a milestone you would like to accomplish in your first year as director?  

Berman: As a Department, we have already started more than 250 fix-it-first SB 1 projects and finished more than a dozen.I have an amazing team and we are already delivering on the SB 1 commitments – and we will continue to do so throughout this year and beyond.

ENR: When you first started at Caltrans did ever think that you would one day become director?

Berman: It is such an honor to be appointed director of Caltrans, one I never anticipated. I started as a bridge inspector out of Santa Barbara in the 1980s. I loved that Caltrans had lots of opportunities to move around. My goal was to keep learning and to provide a good transportation system for Californians, whether I was an inspector, designer or director. I stayed engaged and when opportunities came, I accepted them.