Caltrans official says she was demoted for objecting to highway expansion

Jeanie Ward-Waller was removed last month from her position overseeing California's transportation planning.

Oct 3, 2023 - 22:43
Caltrans official says she was demoted for objecting to highway expansion

A top California transportation official who was reassigned last month told POLITICO she was demoted for objecting to highway expansions that will increase driving.

Jeanie Ward-Waller, Caltrans’ deputy director of planning and modal programs, was taken off the job in September. Her reassignment came three weeks after she said she notified agency officials that she would file a whistleblower complaint about Sacramento-area road construction projects allegedly circumventing environmental rules.

Caltrans' chief deputy director, Michael Keever, notified Ward-Waller on Sept. 14 that she would be terminated from her role Oct. 4 and placed on administrative leave until then. In a letter seen by POLITICO, he offered her the option of returning to her previous role at the agency or one administrative level above that.

Ward-Waller's attorney, Christian Schreiber, said she was still weighing her next steps. "We plan to press her employment-related claims and her whistleblower retaliation claims and litigation, if that's what's necessary," he said in an interview.

Caltrans officials declined to comment on specific claims. "Caltrans will cooperate with any independent investigation into these claims," agency spokesperson Edward Barrera said in a statement. "In addition, Caltrans does not comment on personnel matters."

Ward-Waller had served in the position since January 2020 and was an appointee of former Caltrans Director Toks Omishakin, whom Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) promoted last year to Secretary of Transportation. She started at Caltrans in 2017 as sustainability program manager and before that was the policy director for the California Bicycle Coalition.

As deputy director of planning, she oversaw Caltrans' long-range planning and research and helped set the agency's policy direction. The agency has authority over all state highways and oversees all state and federal transportation spending, including on rail, bike lanes and pedestrian routes as well as roads.

Ward-Waller said in an interview — her first since her termination — that she had objected to two construction projects on Highway 80 because, she said, Caltrans' state and federal permits improperly understated their environmental impacts.

"My job at Caltrans headquarters was really to help move us in a direction where we're not widening highways so much anymore," she said. "We care about climate, we care about equity, so we're trying to move towards more multimodal options and do less widening. My involvement in projects like this is from that kind of a perspective, of trying to challenge the districts to think differently about how they're approaching projects like this."

The projects are both located on the Yolo Causeway, an elevated highway between Davis and Sacramento that crosses the Yolo Bypass, a floodplain that serves as wildlife habitat. The first project began construction in August and the second is expected to begin construction by October 2024.

Ward-Waller alleged that Caltrans improperly described the first project as "pavement rehabilitation" when it will actually widen the road to accommodate new lanes. Because of that, she said, it's illegally using state funds that are intended only for road maintenance, not widening.

She also said the projects should have been considered as one and that by "piecemealing" them into two, Caltrans was able to streamline permitting for the first project, avoiding a full evaluation of alternatives under the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Ward-Waller said she had been raising concerns about the project since July. She said she elevated the concerns in a text message to Keever on Aug. 16 and detailed them in a meeting with him on Aug. 17 before going on vacation for two weeks.

"That was the time I basically said, 'We need to call an external audit here,'" she said.

After being demoted Sept. 14, Ward-Waller said, she submitted a formal whistleblower complaint to Caltrans on Sept. 16.

She also identified in the complaint two other projects underway in the Sacramento region that she said are improperly using maintenance funding while actually widening the roads and said the Caltrans district that oversees the region is known for trying to use road-maintenance funding to widen highways. "This was somewhat their way of doing business," she said.

Caltrans declined further comment.