CalTrans' top man on Slide steps aside

Browne retiring after 42 years

Half Moon Bay Review, Sept. 25, 1996

By Eric Rice

Joe Browne, director of Bay Area operations for CalTrans and a lightning rod in the Devil's Slide debate, will retire next month.

Browne, who turns 65 in October, will retire Oct. 25 as CalTrans District 4 director, a post he assumed three years ago. He has planned an October retirement for more than a year now, friends and associates at the California Department of Transportation said.

"He really is a true public servant," Jim Drago, spokesman at the California Department of Transportation's Sacramento headquarters, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "He goes down as one of the transportation heroes."

"Both of us have the same goal, to solve problems and don't pass the buck," observed Jim Roberts, director of Engineering Services at the Sacramento office and a friend of Browne's for 44 years.

Opponents of the Martini Creek Bypass have long hurled vitriol at Browne, characterizing him as unresponsive to the public and the point man behind a hidden agenda to build the bypass so that thousands more houses than are currently planned for on the coast could someday be built. But on Tuesday, most declined to comment on Browne's retirement on the record.

Pacifican Mitch Reid, who has repeatedly battled CalTrans over Freedom of Information Act requests, said he hopes "whoever replaces him will put the public back into public agency."

Browne's secretary said he was out of the office for two days and could not be reached.

"Let's face it," Drago said, "Joe's at an age when . . . retirement is an option."

John Barbour, a leader in the campaign against Measure T, the tunnel initiative, which would halt plans for the bypass, had developed a rapport with Browne over the past year and praised the outgoing director.

"He's one of the outstanding people who've worked at CalTrans," Barbour said. "I met Joe Browne. My distinct impression was he wanted to do right."

Barbour said Browne made no secret of his preference for the 4.5-mile inland Martini Creek Bypass. But he said he got the impression Browne favored it simply because he thought it was the best solution.

"One of (Browne's) great regrets was he didn't get to take this (to completion)," Barbour recalled him saying recently.

Drago said no decision has been made on who will replace Browne, and he isn't the only senior official leaving the agency. According to Drago, three district directors with a combined 125 years of experience are leaving CalTrans.

Browne's retirement ends a 42-year career with the state transportation agency, which he began two years after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1952 with a bachelor's degree in engineering. Except for a five-year stint in another district office, Browne worked in various capacities in the District 4 office including project development, program management, rail operations, transportation and construction.

In 1983 he was promoted to deputy district director of construction, and followed that in 1993 with his appointment as director, replacing Preston Kelley. As director, he oversees all CalTrans projects in the Bay Area, including Devil's Slide.

Browne has been viewed by detractors as unresponsive to the public. Reid said Browne repeatedly "stonewalled" information requests and misrepresented facts, such as in written correspondence that a tunnel would pass through McNee Ranch State Park when alignments existed that avoided the park.

In July, Browne infuriated local residents and some elected officials by ordering CalTrans officials not to attend a meeting of the Citizens Advisory Committee to discuss the progress of the tunnel study. Browne's last-minute no-show violated the provisions of a contract CalTrans negotiated that called for the agency to attend a certain number of public progress reports.

Browne's action also prompted officials from the Federal Highways Administration and the tunnel study consultant to beg off.

The agency was widely criticized. State Sen. Byron Sher, D-Palo Alto, asked CalTrans Director James Van Loben Sels for an explanation, and the Pacifica City Council chastised Browne in a letter to Gov. Wilson.

But Reid noted that Browne "has been the Teflon man for CalTrans."

Drago disputed the image that CalTrans is a bunch of "bureaucrats plotting out a strategy." The agency's job _ with or without Browne _ is to take the direction provided by the people "and bring a project to fruition," he said.

Barbour said Browne and the agency were merely easy targets for attack.

"You have to have a target and CalTrans is a very convenient target," Barbour said.

Half Moon Bay Review