Caltrans, CSTA, CTC: A historical guide to California’s statewide transportation agencies and what they do

A post in Streetsblog LA serves as a reminder that identifying and differentiating the roles of government agencies with similar-sounding names is challenging. Throw in a bunch of acronyms, and it becomes outright baffling.

The California Department of Transportation, the California Transportation Commission, and the California State Transportation Agency are three very distinct organizations with their own scope of responsibilities.

As the article explains:

It can be confusing to distinguish between various state transportation agencies.

Caltrans is the state’s official Department of Transportation, with a fraught history as the state’s highway builder.

The California Transportation Commission (CTC), an appointed body, oversees and allocates state and federal funding for transportation projects built by Caltrans as well as regional and local agencies.

The California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) oversees every state department that touches transportation, including Caltrans and the CTC, but also the DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles], the CHP [California Highway Patrol], the [California] High-Speed Rail Authority, and the [California] Office of Traffic Safety, which manages grants to local governments, police departments, and other organizations for safety and enforcement programs.

Confusing now, but consistent with the state’s history of transportation agencies.

The early years

The advent of the automobile led California led the State Legislature to create the Bureau of Highways in 1895, signed into effect by then Governor James Budd.

The following year, it became the state Department of Highways. Interestingly, the state did not have any highways, but since roads were inconsistently maintained under local jurisdiction, the state sought to prepare them to accommodate automobiles in a consistent manner.

In 1907, the Department of Highways morphed into the state Department of Engineering which contained a Division of Highways.

California voters approved an $18 million bond issue for the construction of a state highway system in 1910, and the first California Highway Commission was convened in 1911. The California Highway Commission was extant until 1978, when it was split into four entities: The California Highway Commission, the State Transportation Board, the State Aeronautics Board, and the California Toll Bridge Authority.

In 1921, the State Legislature turned the Department of Engineering into the Department of Public Works.

Creation of the agencies we have today

In 1967, Governor Ronald Reagan formed a Task Force Committee on Transportation to study the state transportation system and recommend major reforms.

One of the proposals of the task force was the creation of a State Transportation Board as a permanent advisory board on state transportation policy; the board would later merge into the California Transportation Commission in 1978.

In September 1971, the State Transportation Board proposed the creation of a state department of transportation charged with responsibility for performing and integrating transportation planning for all modes.

Governor Reagan mentioned this proposal in his 1972 State of the State address and Assemblyman Wadie P. Deddeh introduced Assembly Bill 69 to that effect, which was duly passed by the state legislature and signed into law by Reagan later that same year.

AB 69 merged three existing departments to create the Department of Transportation, of which the most important was the Department of Public Works and its Division of Highways. The California Department of Transportation began official operations on July 1, 1973.

Historical research

For historical highway history, you can consult California Highways (1912-1927), later renamed California Highways and Public Works (1927-1967), the definitive serial publication documenting highway planning, construction and operations in the state. We have digitized and provide free access to the entire run of this publication. Our directory of digitized issues is found here, and we have also developed a full-text Google Custom Search for topical searches in this periodical.