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Podcast: Interview with Caltrans Whistleblower Jeanie Ward-Waller

"Frankly, as a public servant, I take really seriously that we need to be telling the truth to the public, and we need to create the required opportunities to have public engagement and public input to our work. So that requires being transparent, and also requires being honest in our analysis."

Jeanie Ward-Waller may not be a household name in California, but until recently she may have had the most important job in the state as far as Streetsblog readers are concerned. Ward-Waller served as the Deputy Director of Planning and Multimodal Programs at Caltrans, where she not only oversaw many of the great programs that we regularly highlight at Streetsblog, but also served as an internal watchdog to make certain the agency was working to meet its own climate and equity goals.

While many were surprised when Politico announced earlier this fall that she was "reassigned," in retrospect maybe the surprise should have been that she lasted as long and accomplished as much as she did.

Below you can find the audio of a twenty-minute chat we had last week, followed by a stack of links to stories about her time at Caltrans and Calbike before that. A lightly edited transcript of the podcast is included at the end.

Jeanie Ward-Waller Streetsblog highlights, starting with the most recent stories:

Interview Transcript

Damien Newton
So: as mentioned in the intro, I'm here with Jeanie Ward-Waller, who until recently was Deputy Director of Planning and Multimodal Programs at Caltrans. We're talking today about some of the changes that have happened at Caltrans recently, including that she is no longer the Deputy Director of Planning and Multimodal Programs at Caltrans.

For those of you that don't know, Jeanie has been a frequent guest on Streetsblog, California, or I shouldn't say guest - frequent source person quoted in stories. Not just when she was with Caltrans...but before that, she was with Calbike. When she was first put in this position, we were all very excited. I'll add some links to some of our Streetsblog California stories in the text that accompanies this podcast if people are interested. But having said all that - welcome to our podcast, Jeannie.

Jeanie Ward-Waller
Thank you. It's great to see you. Great to be with you.

Damien Newton
Thank you. So I did mention that you have a much longer history than just working at Caltrans recently. So why don't we do a little bit of your biography to give some people that might not be as familiar with you an idea as to why there were so many people across the state really excited when you were originally tapped for this position at Caltrans.

Jeanie Ward-Waller
Thank you. I appreciate all those nice things. I am originally - I don't know how far back you want me to go. But I'm a trained engineer. I did start my career as an engineer working in Boston. I transitioned into advocacy via a bike trip across the country, which was where I kind of cut my teeth on advocacy and fundraised for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. And just, like, very serendipitously, at the end of that trip, I met the founder of that organization, Deb Hubsmith, who hired me to move to California and start working in advocacy here in Sacramento.

I consider myself so lucky, because I just was the career shift that I needed. I loved being in advocacy so much, and certainly have found my passion in the world of sustainable transportation. But I spent a couple of years working for Safe Routes to School, as you said, I then moved to the California Bicycle Coalition as a policy director there. And then found my way to Caltrans, about six years ago. I started at Caltrans as the Sustainability Program Manager, helping to build that program, which was really pretty new at the time, and had grown out of that Caltrans reform effort from about ten years ago.

And so I was really excited...I felt like if I was ever going to try to make change inside of government, that that was the place to do it. And that program was new, growing, and really came out of the idea of how do we change the Department of Transportation and make it more modern, more oriented towards climate, inequity and community, quality of life - the things that we want to see in our transportation system today. After a few years in that program, I was appreciated and recognized for my brand of change.

I was promoted into the Deputy Director role over the planning and modal program, which is a pretty large portion of Caltrans - kind of the part of Caltrans that is responsible for looking into the future and deciding how the policies and the work of the department need to shift. And that was my job. I took it very seriously because both as an advocate, and then as a civil servant - public servant - I felt like that work is really, really important.

Damien Newton
When people describe what these positions were, the shorthand is, "It's Jeanie's job to make sure that Caltrans is actually trying to meet the climate goals that the governor and the legislature have put out." But sometimes shorthand is inaccurate. Sometimes it doesn't go far enough. Sometimes it glosses over. Is that accurate? Were you the internal person who was trying to make sure that Caltrans was helping them meet climate goals?

Jeanie Ward-Waller
It is accurate, but I wasn't the only one. There is also a deputy director of sustainability, who is a governor appointee. That person's job is also oriented around our climate goals. But because I oversaw the planning program, and also the modal programs - multimodal programs, which included our rail and transit programs - I was more on the implementation side of how we get future projects to be better aligned with our climate goals, and thus reach the goals that we have set out in our statewide plans like the California Transportation Plan. The legislature requires that document to show the path to our 2050 climate goal, which is an eighty percent reduction in GHG - which is massive. So that's a very ambitious plan.

And somehow what we do today, and the projects that we're initiating - that are coming in the future - need to kind of put us on the path to those goals. So that was the work of the Planning Program, which was in my purview.

Damien Newton
What are some of the things that you were able to work on at Caltrans that were exciting to you, or particularly things that you can point out and be, "Wow, the six years that I've spent there up to now were really worthwhile looking at these great things."

Jeanie Ward-Waller
Oh, my many things. And I'm incredibly proud of the time that I spent in Caltrans.

And I also want to say, it's not just me. I don't want to take credit for all of the great things that were happening. I was in a leadership position, which is important to help set the course. But there are just so many good people at Caltrans, so many people that I worked with that were on my team. Some work in different parts of the department that are really responsible for making change happen. And so, it was really fun work - a lot of things that I'm really proud of.

We were working on something called CSIS or the Caltrans System Investment Strategy. And that is a set of metrics that help us determine whether the projects that we're doing in the future are aligned with the goals that we have, not just climate, equity, safety; but multiple different policy priorities. And that, I think, is really fundamental to trying to make good decisions in the future. That's something that's still ongoing. It's not complete, it will be something that iterates over many years and gets better with time. But we've spent a huge amount of time on that.

Now, the thing I take a lot of pride in is helping to really create the equity program. I founded a Caltrans Office of Race and Equity and brought people together from different parts of the department that were working on Native American liaison issues and community engagement issues, and we created a kind of cohesive unit in headquarters that was responsible for leading that work. And there have been policies that have grown out of that work. Also something that we call the equity index, which is also telling us about where and what are the characteristics of communities where we're doing projects - and how do we make them better, from an equity perspective, reduce harm, improve benefits.

So those are a couple of things.

There were other things that were actively underway. Like we were working on transit priority policies and projects. I think Caltrans has a huge amount of opportunity to improve how transit flows, especially, not just on the state highway system that Caltrans owns, but also across the system, often on local streets. That's also still underway. It's to be seen, what comes of some of those efforts. Without me there, I think all those things need a really strong champion to really be implemented and live up to the goals that we have.

Damien Newton
A lot of the headlines about you have used the word "fired" - that you were fired, or let go from your position. But you were really internally reassigned, but the reassignment was done in such a way that it's just basically the same thing. Because you haven't left Caltrans, you're still there, but you're currently on family leave. Let's just untangle all of that first so people can understand exactly what's going on.

Jeanie Ward-Waller
Because I was in an executive role, it's a little bit of a unique state government position, where you can be terminated in an executive role. Because, as I mentioned before, I had come into Caltrans in a civil service classification as the sustainability program manager, I had return rights to return to that classification. And based on the longevity I have at Caltrans, actually one level above that level. The details are not that important, but functionally it is kind of a demotion, if I accept my rights of return - which I have done at this point. I've been on family leave for the last month and a half, but I am still an employee of Caltrans.

But I will not return to Caltrans in the role I was in before and it's not clear what my role will be when I return

Damien Newton
In the meantime your old position still exists. And hopefully, it's still working on some of these issues. It's been reported in a lot of the press, including by Melanie Curry in Streetsblog California, that the impetus for them making a change was really the opposition you were giving internally to a freeway project in the Sacramento region. I think a lot of us were sort of caught off guard when all this happened. I remember when we all read the Politico story, at Streetsblog we were like, "wait, what's happening? Really? That doesn't make sense." Can you sort of explain what you think happened as best you can, without tripping on the legal case that you have against Caltrans? I mean, was this a surprise, or was it something you saw coming as you were expressing opposition to some programs or projects that Caltrans was pushing that really weren't living up to the goals that the agency was publicly expressing?

Jeanie Ward-Waller
Short answer is that it was a total surprise to me.

And I'll tell you, the reason that I was surprised by the change - by the termination - is that the questions that I was asking about this specific project in Sacramento are the kinds of questions I asked every day in my job at Caltrans: is this project aligned with our goals? Are we living up to the public benefits that we're claiming we will get from these projects? Those were the kinds of questions I asked every day as an employee of Caltrans.

And frankly, I felt like that was my job. I was put in a job where I'm a change agent. It's part of my job description, to sort of look into the future and figure out how the department needs to change. And so it would be me not living up to my duties in that job, if I wasn't asking questions like I was asking. Frankly, as a public servant, I take really seriously that we need to be telling the truth to the public, and we need to create the required opportunities to have public engagement and public input to our work. So that requires being transparent, and also requires being honest in our analysis.

And I was concerned that wasn't happening on those two projects, that are at the exact same location, so it kind of functionally seemed like one project, at this location on I-80.

I was very surprised by the termination. And the timing of it was right on the heels of me saying I was concerned about accountability. And not really seeing any response to those questions prompted me to say, "I really think this warrants an external audit." This is the kind of thing whistleblower opportunities exist for: when you're asking questions, and they're not being answered, and nobody's taking it seriously. I just felt like I had an obligation to appeal to other forms of accountability and government. So again, none of that was different from what I had always done in my time at Caltrans. And so it was a big surprise when the next thing to happen was that I was terminated in my role.

Damien Newton
I'm down here in Greater Los Angeles. Caltrans has been getting beat up a lot recently in the past week - I mean by Streetsblog, always, but in the past week in the mainstream press because of what went on with the I-10 fire in LA. When we were doing our pre-interview you were talking about how the role of Caltrans keeps changing and expanding. And to be fair to people working at the agency, it's really hard to keep up with all of the "extra things." Twenty years ago, it was "build the freeways," and maybe be a landlord for some random houses along the 710 corridor.

But now there's all these different things they have to take into account. So I guess what I'm trying to ask is, how fair is it to just level some of these larger accusations at the agency? How difficult is it to be at Caltrans these day? You're someone who has got a few things to say about the agency, but you also bring a different perspective than I think your average person that just exists in California, or even your Streetsblog editor.

Jeanie Ward-Waller
I think it's incredibly hard, especially at the leadership level, trying to make decisions about priorities. I think the job of Caltrans today is so much more complicated than it was, as you said, even twenty years ago. The crises of the past that Caltrans has dealt with and responded incredibly well to are things like earthquakes and damage to the system...mudslides. We see a lot of these emergencies, crises, where the system gets impacted severely, and Caltrans can respond in an incredible fashion, and usually does and I think will to this fire and the damage that was done to the 10 freeway. That is really the bread and butter and what Caltrans does really well.

And building and maintaining the highway system is what this agency was established to do and has done through its whole history. The "new stuff" is complete streets, and how do we deal with these other users that aren't in a car that maybe want to be in a bus or train or have options, or maybe don't want to travel, want to have like, options to not have to travel as much or as far. Those are way more complicated problems that interact with air quality, land use, community opinions, and all of this other complicated stuff.

Certainly being landlords of folks who are unhoused in particular is just such an intractable, difficult issue. And to think about engineers who are trying to build highways suddenly having to figure out how to, like, take care of people. It's's not what people came to Caltrans thinking that they would be doing. And so I do think that the agency's job has become incredibly complicated, and I'm very sympathetic to that. I think we need to appreciate what Caltrans does well, and keeping the roads open and keeping them working pretty well is impressive. The other things are very hard. And there, it's gonna take a lot of time and a really strong push.

You need people like me, right? You need people to push for change to actually change an organization like that. And sometimes it takes a generation. You need to bring in all new people with all new ideas, trying to think about problems differently, before you really get true change in an agency.

Damien Newton
All right, well, we are hitting our artificially created time limit of twenty minutes, but you know, it's the internet. So it's not like it's a hard and fast rule. I always like to close with the assumption that maybe there's something I missed or a question I didn't ask. So if there's a question I didn't ask that you really want to answer; feel free to ask it now. If not, I think maybe just take a short look into the future and tell us: what should advocates who are interested in working on issues with Caltrans...what should we be looking for in 2024 and beyond? You can just answer your own question or mine or do both in either order.

Jeanie Ward-Waller
That's a really good question. Maybe I'll at least partly answer it, because I don't have a magic looking glass. So I don't know exactly what's going to come in the future. But I do think that there's so much more work to do with Caltrans and with all of Caltrans' partners. Down in your neck of the woods, obviously, LA Metro is working hand in glove with Caltrans. So there's a lot of accountability and influence and engagement to do with all of the folks that are making these decisions. But it's so important...I would just say there's more money in transportation now than there ever has been.

Caltrans' budget is bigger than it's ever been. And that's because there's both more state money as well as more federal money flowing into transportation right now. And so the decisions that get made in the next five to ten years are going to create the system and the communities of the future. And so I just think it's such an important time to be engaged and to be doing this work, and to be paying close attention to asking the hard questions for what Caltrans and other agencies are doing. So I really appreciate the work of advocates. I talk to advocates all the time. A lot of them are my good friends.

I think it's important that we all be honest with each other both about what we're doing well, and what we need to improve. So I just want to leave with maybe some appreciation.

Damien Newton
All right, well, hey, thank you so much for your time. Again, there's some links and some of Jeanie's story that go back to... I don't know if we have ones from back in your Safe Routes days. I'm sure if I look hard enough, we can find some quotes or two. I often say the the people that do open streets and the people that do Safe Routes to Schools don't know how lucky they have it, because the opposition to taking kids to school safely or to doing an open street event is so much less than the opposition to so many of the other issues we work on.

Jeanie Ward-Waller
It's like mom and apple pie! And biking across the country....that was part of why I picked it as an organization to focus on biking across the country. We were biking through the south and all across the country everybody cares about their communities being safe for kids to be able to walk and bike to school. So I agree with you. It's an issue that goes to my heart, and always will be.

Damien Newton
Thank you so much for your time today. And again, there are some links to some Jeanie Ward-Waller stories on Streetsblog California included with the text that accompanies this podcast, and we will keep in touch and keep an eye on what's going on.

Jeanie Ward-Waller
Thank you so much, Damien. This is fun.

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