Another Government Computer Failure

How long does it take to figure out that something is not going to work? It took the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) seven years and $10 million to abandon plans to automate the way it grants permits to truckers carrying oversized loads on California roads and highways.

The Sacramento Bee
(March 2nd) has reported that the latest software failure has become “a long and puzzling line of computer contract failures in California government .... [State government] has repeatedly spent millions of dollars on projects that were ill-designed or mismanaged or simply collapsed under the weight of their own complexity.”

Caltrans officials decided the agency needed a computerized system when an investigation revealed a Caltrans employee had given a truck driver with an oversized load a permit and bad directions, causing the truck to crash into an overpass and kill a motorist. 

Caltrans hired a private firm to get the program running by 2002. The project should not have been difficult to complete. The firm had already created a program that was being used in several other states. 

In the Bee report, Robert Copp, Caltrans’ chief of traffic operations, said he believed that the project “could be done,” even though the firm could not show any progress on the project.

After the contractor missed several dates for completion, the last being October 2005, and the price rose to $15 million, the job sat in limbo. Caltrans and the software company struggled to negotiate amendments to the project specifications. Finally, last year, the state gave up and cut its losses.

“In a settlement, the state paid the firm…$1.7 million to wind up the deal. That brought the company’s total earning on the project to $2.6 million since 2002. The rest of the money was spent on state employee overseeing the job, computer equipment, and an independent consultant to assess the progress – or lack of it – on the project.”

According to Copp, “It was clear that we were not going to be able to use this software to operate the system.” Something he should have figured out after the first delay.

Copp has not completely given up on automating the process.  He told the Bee,“We are going to go out and do a market analysis and see if there is software available that we can use.”   Maybe the second try will not be such a waste.

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