Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Guide Sign Issues: The GPS Debate and New Strategies To Correct Guide Sign Deficiencies

It seems that a tremendous misunderstanding has happened in what the purpose of guide signs are.  For one, they are not just there as a poor man's GPS.  They are designed to promote a road: to indicate clearly to the public what is the best route to a location regardless of the many options available.  This promotion is not just important for a guidance standpoint.  Cities and towns stand to gain or lose business by their presence on a directional sign, and not having any signage at all can be a safety issue: especially if the only option to a point of interest is a hazardous road with no safe place to turn around.  Finding your way around is a split second decision if you do not know the area.  Thus, the need for these signs has not passed.


Traveling along US 411 in Alabama, a junction with Cherokee CR 29 lacks the first sign you see here.  Once a state route, these two communities along CR 29 have dried up in recent years helped along by the lack of through traffic.  Perhaps if this road were promoted as not only a shortcut to Piedmont, but also these other communities shown here it would better distribute traffic, increase business along the road, and allow a major county highway to serve its intended highway purpose.  However, the sign you see here is considerably large at 7.5' x 3.5' thus a cost that is difficult to factor into a normal budget. 

Guide signs (directions, distance and route signs) have taken a back seat in recent years as federal funding has been made widely available only for warning and regulatory signs while states have viewed guide signs as less important than in the past due to GPS systems that are now easily available.  While they may be partially right, the concept of guide signs is to define routes, not just to show drivers how to get somewhere.  Defining a route means that an expert (engineer or technician) has determined the best way to go based on:

  • Road quality (width, pavement, geometry)
  • Road conditions (speed limits, signals, curves)
    • Some roadways are unsuitable, because they lack a signal in a high traffic area making left turns more hazardous than a longer way
  • Roadway classification (arterial, collector)
    • Most functionally local roads do not reach any cities or towns and do not justify signage
    • Exceptions exist for posting guide signs on a functionally local roads where it involves towns/unincorporated communities, points of interest, or alternate routes when the primary routing it substandard
  • Obstacles (weight limits, height limits, pedestrian traffic, business districts, residential areas)
  • Shortest and best route (not always based on state routes)
  • Roadway designation (guide signs line up with route designation)
  • Combination of roads (single route has overlaps with other major roads or highways) 
    • Note that "route" refers to both numbered and unnumbered routes based on destinations

GPS cannot always determine those conditions.  GPS looks at lines on a map and chooses a way based on distance.  Although items on the list can be programmed in, they are not always indicative of conditions in the field.  Here are some things to remember about GPS before deciding that all the guide signs should just be removed:

  1. GPS is not always correct
  2. GPS has led large trucks down roads with unsuitable conditions including:
    • Substandard bridges that collapsed under the weight of the truck
    • Low overpasses that caused trucks to hit the bridge and get stuck
    • Roads that are too narrow with too sharp of curves for trucks to navigate where trucks got stuck or wrecked
  3. GPS has led cars to roads that were:
    • Unpaved
    • Ended in water such as a boat ramp, ford or canal
    • Came to a dead end when the map showed the road as connecting
    • The road did not actually exist
  4. GPS looks for the shortest route, which is not always the most suitable route.  It leads traffic onto roads that were never designed for through traffic and are not funded at a level to handle high traffic volumes.
  5. GPS is not a substitute for posting information that should be readily available to the roadway users
  6. Most of all, GPS serves as a distraction to drivers who should be focusing on the road itself.
    • Attempting to navigate GPS maps because a necessary directional guide sign or route sign is not available is not acceptable and leads to distracted driving, thus accidents
    • Distracted driving is already a crisis in this country, and it is made worse when drivers are looking at their GPS for directions in hazardous conditions

Virginia clearly posts truck warnings or restrictions ahead of the condition.  Note the "GPS Routing Is Not Advised" plaques that prove that trucks have ignored these conditions before showing the flaws of GPS.

Seeing that this is true, it is NOT a valid argument to call guide signs outmoded because of GPS.  Guide signs are there to define routes according to the list above.  That means either highways or the BEST route to a city/town, nearest highway, park, historical site or public facility.  This includes not just state highways, but also local roads since all these factors regarding local roads are true:
  1. Local roads may actually be highways that are simply not maintained by the state
    • Nationally, most states maintain primarily roadways that are considered arterial routes of statewide importance
    • Collectors and many urban arterials are increasingly becoming the sole responsibility of local governments who are not structured in a way to manage higher classification roadways
    • This means many local roadways may actually carry highway traffic over long distances even though they are not the responsibility of the state DOT
  2. Landmarks, parks, recreation areas and other points of interest are often not located on the state highway system
    • Parks and facilities off-system often require many additional turns to reach.  These turns are not always signed, especially when the turn that is required is along a local road.
  3. Cities and towns are often located at a point just off of a state route or are not situated along a state route.  This is increasingly true as states continue to reduce their mileage.
    • Cities and towns are often found on old highway alignments and along major county roads in some cases as much as 10 miles from the nearest state highway
    • The trend of cities and towns removing highways through their core has resulted in poor guide signage through the cities as both states and counties rely on the municipality to define truck routes and destinations beyond the city and town itself
  4. The shortest and best route may actually be along a local road as opposed to a state road.  
    • The location of state routes is often politically motivated and may follow convoluted routes where a shorter, faster, and better constructed road may actually be locally-owned
    • Nonetheless, the state will typically avoid guiding traffic onto a local road due to the following reasons:
      • A lack of guide signs at a junction of two local roads where a turn is required to reach a destination
      • A lack of guide signs where a local highway approaches a state route.
      • Because the roadway itself is not maintained to suitable standards (inadequate traffic control or pavement markings)
      • Because the roadway has design characteristics not suitable to through traffic (this is the only justifiable reason).
  5. Local highways may go long distances before connecting to another state highway.  This is common in many western states where state control ratios are often less than 10% and distances between developed areas are further.

Here is an example of a state highway that does not provide the shortest nor best route.  While it is potentially a turnback candidate, the issue is that it is signed for Morganton from US 19/129 (and Blue Ridge sporadically).  Google clearly shows Loving Road as the shortest and best route.  Taking SR 325 is eight miles out of the way and taking the more convoluted northern route is 6 miles out of the way.  If guide signs were posted at two intersections on Loving Road at US 76/SR 515 and SR 325, it would provide the shortest and best route.  It has no truck prohibition, is eligible for federal-aid, and it serves as an example of why guide signs should be related to roadway function instead of jurisdiction.


Cane Creek Road in Pickett County, TN is an example of a highway under local control.  It becomes a state highway in Kentucky.  The sign on the right indicated the roadway's former federal-aid secondary number before TN eliminated federal-aid funding from rural county roads.

THE SIMPLE ANSWER AND WHY IT HAS NOT WORKED

The simple answer discussed in a prior post is that the state just takes over the responsibility of guide signs for local governments, but this has not been happening.  That involves the state assuming responsibility for posting and maintaining guide signs on all public roads regardless of ownership as a means of synchronizing state and local roadways so that guide signs are based on function and need instead of ownership.  That sounds good, but there are a number of problems with that:
  1. Not all states are doing a good job with their own guide sign program
    • Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine are examples of this: states that lack any specific specialization and have numerous deficient standards, missing signs and errors
  2. County routes, if they exist, are not based on a logical farm-to-market system because local home rule is used to define these roads in lieu of a centralized approach.
    • In these cases, the state was unwilling or unable to continue managing a farm-to-market program turning that responsibility over to the local governments leading to numerous inconsistencies (typical of county routes in Alabama, Oregon, and Colorado)
    • The state cannot realistically manage or be liable for a system with such a high level of inconsistencies, because it would show preference for participating vs. non-participating counties
    • Some counties oversign county routes while others do not sign enough routes (meaning every single county road is marked with a blue pentagon)
    • Others revoke the program entirely (in some cases the county routes exist on paper but not in the field)
    • Routes are inexplicably renumbered, change numbers, or disappear at county lines (CR 25 in one county becomes CR 1480 in the next, or CR 25 becomes a named road across a county line)
    • Routes are defined by ownership instead of function meaning that they are not signed upon entering city/town limits even though cities and towns in most states are part of a county (CR 65 becomes an unnumbered route upon entering a city even if the junction with the nearest state highway is only a mile away)
  3. States refuse to accept the liability of posting signs on roads that they do not own
    • In some cases home rule laws that were not well thought out are the blame, but in others the state simply wants no part in directly managing local affairs
    • Lack of communication means that problems that present a hazard to motorists are never addressed and that signage is inconsistent
    • Extremely incorrect or outdated information is often left on any remaining signs since most guide signs were installed by the state decades ago, and they are generally replaced "in kind" instead of reviewed for accuracy of information.
  4. States refuse to incur the additional expense and responsibility of installing and locating signs on roads that they are less familiar with.
    • Even if states do not manage any other function, it would be a minimal cost for the state to assist in guide sign installation and management, at least in rural areas
    • Since roadway classifications do not line up neatly with state control, this means that the system would function much more smoothly if they provided this service at no cost to local governments
  5. The decline in state funding and control in many states means that the economies of scale on a state level are poor.
    • This means fewer internal resources to manage guide sign planning and maintenance.
    • Because the state has to cut services, reduce staff, and outsource guide sign work to prisoners or contractors, the available oversight is not there to make sure that signs are designed correctly and placed in the field in a proper or consistent manner
    • As-is replacements are used instead of periodic review
    • Knock downs are neither located nor replaced
    • Sign clutter becomes a problem, because signs are added instead of grouped and planned properly
  6. States may indeed install guide signs on local roads, but then they would expect the local government to maintain these signs when the majority of local agencies lack the equipment or resources to effectively maintain these signs.
    • Very few local governments install directional and distance guide signs, trailblazers or any other route sign other than county routes (this is viewed an excessive expense)
    • Guide signs on former highways left over by the state are never replaced, updated or are simply removed
    • Other guide signs installed by local governments are inconsistent from county to county and typically do not comply with either state or federal standards.
    • Guide signs on a local level are typically not designed by people with any level of technical expertise to make sure that they are appropriate or correct
    • Guide signs are often the most expensive signs to produce requiring a higher level of technical expertise and materials not typically required for warning and regulatory signs such as unusual hardware, framing straps, z-bars, larger signposts, design challenges, and space is often limited on where to put the signs.
    • Signposts often must be of different lengths when terrain is uneven
  7. Some "guide signs" are actually special warning or regulatory signs.  These are special signs with similar design characteristics such as roadway prohibitions (e.g. "Notice: Candler Mountain Road Closed in Winter", "Trucks Prohibited on Maple St"), or W16-8a signs (longer street names can make these signs very large).
    • Local agencies often produce these signs too small to avoid the difficulties of producing and installing a larger, more legible sign

Guide signs are expensive and have more complicated planning than other signs.  This is the result of what happens when standards are not adequate.  In this instance, one sign for the state park would have sufficed, and the design of the green sign is sloppy and non-standard.  While this has most likely been removed, it demonstrates the need for a heavily centralized, specialized, and engineer-driven approach.


In this instance in Hughson, CA on CR J7, you see how wrong a guide sign can go even when one is properly planned but designed improperly.  This sign does not meet either MUTCD or CalTrans specifications for design even though the basic information is presented correctly.

In other words, blindly relying on the state alone more often than not means little to nothing is ever done.  A federal infusion is needed to highlight the problems and demonstrate the importance of this issue.  States DOT's should also make this a specific program to local governments usually with a PTOE hired to specifically manage the program and a process established to do so.  A local guide sign program should be coupled with state-owned guide signs so that the entire guide sign program is managed consistently on both levels of roads and projects should be grouped on both state and local roads to better manage material costs and coordinate signage.  Local agencies often do not recognize the problem, and state governments are not always structured in a way to mediate the problem.  Even when funding levels are adequate, it does not mean that either the state or local government has ever seriously considered the issue.  

A NEW STRATEGY: THREE OPTIONS

Across the country, only about 1/5 of the states have a road system that is centralized enough to adequately manage guide signs.  West Virginia, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Delaware appear to have the best program with high standards, frequent maintenance and consistent application both on highways and local roads.  The problem in West Virginia and Delaware is that both have the vast majority of their roads under state control: not typical in most of the country.  Iowa and Wisconsin are the notable exceptions, and it is related to a strong culture of local traffic engineering standards lacking in other states, but it is out of the ordinary.  Wisconsin also has an overlaying road system where the counties are contracted to maintain state routes resulting in greater state oversight of county activities.  Obviously centralization has a major advantage in regards of planning and maintenance of guide signs compared to states who do not.  States that transfer roads to the local government, on the other hand, have difficulty managing guide signs, especially when route signs change in a way that destinations become invalid over long distances.  When information is not reviewed and updated when routes change, the public learns that they cannot trust these signs to provide useful information.

The three strategies needed to fix this are:
  1. The creation of a federal guide sign program
  2. Specialization (including specific state programs)
  3. Privatization
The Federal Guide Sign Program (GuideWays)

First, it should be considered that few things have helped local governments more than the state application of the High Risk Rural Roads Program on a local level.  For decades, the concept of a traffic study or installation of safety improvements by anything but the local government on local roads was unheard of.  If the county or municipality could not afford to do it on their own, it just was not done.  More often than not, local priorities went to constructing new roads, replacing bridges and repaving roads leaving next to nothing for traffic control.  Once the stop signs were installed, speed limit signs put in place and street name signs put in there was nothing else left over.  Certainly that did not include money for traffic studies or replacing the faded out traffic striping.  While these conditions still exist, they are less frequent than they once were.



What is vs. what should be.  The actual image from Google Maps above shows a tornado-damaged guide sign that was already decades old not being maintained a the junction of US 278 and CR 19, a major county route connecting Centre and Jacksonville, AL.  Jacksonville isn't even mentioned on that sign, and most likely the guide sign dates to the 1970's as a means that the state used to provide additional guidance across county lines from where they actually maintained the road.  If properly planned today, this is what you would see at this intersection.  With no program or funding in place, fixes like this just do not happen anymore.

Even now, guide signs are still non-existent on local roadways, and that is because it never was good in the first place, and no funding is available on a state level for this work.  A new federal guide sign program could eliminate this problem.  The guide sign program takes the existing HRRRP effort and expands it to include a pool of resources just for guide signs.  However, unlike the High Risk Rural Roads program where specific roads are selected for renovation and money is never enough to address every deficient road in a county or municipality, this program would be different.  It would select a county (including all cities within) for a total renovation of guide signs.  These would include signs on state roads, county roads and streets in municipalities all within the same county.  How it would work is that:
  1. The state selects an engineering firm to study every road in the county.  The firm will review the following:
    • Needed guide signs on local roads including trailblazers, directional signs, distance signs
      • "TO" route assemblies are considered trailblazers
    • Boundary and waterway signs
      • This includes city limits, town limits, unincorporated communities/CDP boundaries, county boundaries and state boundaries
      • This includes crossings of lakes, rivers and streams
      • Unincorporated communities are just as important as cities and towns since many unincorporated communities form junctions of highways as well as destinations for many roadways.
    • Junction route assemblies and county route markers (if used) on local roads
      • This includes posting route and directional assemblies on major local roads approaching the junction of a state highway
      • This includes correcting and improving the information on county routes including adding directional banners, junction assemblies, cardinal directions and reassurance signs
    • Where recreational, informational and other guide signs of public interest are needed
      • This includes guidance to state parks, colleges, hospitals, government facilities, stream crossings, jurisdictional boundaries, unincorporated communities, recreation areas and other points of interest
    • Study guide signs on state roads to see if the information is up-to-date and correct
      • Guide signs may reflect destinations and distances on older routings that are no longer valid
      • Guide signs may direct traffic to destinations along county roads previously on the state highway system where guide signs may have been removed along that former highway
    • Integrate or correct guide signs where a conflict exists with state and local roads
      • If a county road or municipal street is adequately constructed as such and it is of adequate functional classification, it may be the preferable route to the more convoluted state route
      • Inquiry from local officials should be obtained if it is acceptable to post the shorter route, and if so should truck restrictions be posted
      • Review signs outside the county boundary that conflict with signs within the county.
      • Include signs in conflict outside of the county as part of the study and notify appropriate public officials of the problem
    • Determine if guide sign text and dimensions on state-owned and locally roads comply with the MUTCD and if the signs need to be larger with larger text
      • An example is using 6" text on an expressway-type road (such as an APD corridor) instead of the required 8" text
      • Substandard guide signs on surface state roads would also be corrected to better comply with the MUTCD in dimensions, fonts and design
    • Identify which signs need replacement, where corrective action is needed or where new signs need to be installed
      • This is all indicated in the traffic study, which identifies these issues in a single plan
    • Add, replace or correct other related warning signs around the study area that involve the intersection including the installation or replacement of the following:
      • W2-x signs, W3-x signs, or W1-10x signs coupled with W16-8/W16-8a signs where a roadway with guide signs lacks a posted route number
      • W1-7 signs at T-intersections (including any state-specific design for object markers posted with W1-7 signs)
      • Any other current or needed warning signs within the study area if the signs need to be replaced or installed; this is important, because guide signs need to be coordinated with all existing signs to facilitate proper spacing
  2. Once the study has been completed, the firm will file for a federal reimbursement along with a federal grant needed to cover the cost of installation of the new signs including correction of signs in conflict outside of county boundaries
    • The federal government will have already pre-approved the study
    • Funding will be needs-based, but may not exceed a budgeted amount
  3. The state will hire a contractor to produce the signs and another to install the signs within the bounds of the project area.
    • When completed, ownership of the signs will transfer to the legally-permitted agency
Specialization

In order for a guide sign program to be effective, this cannot be simply grouped in with other state or local matters.  A specific unit of state government must be in place whose only duty is to plan and design guide signs.  It may even be completely removed from the state DOT, and it could be part of a statewide roads unit.  The Statewide Contracting Plan details this, but essentially local government matters should have a central agency that they can use to provide specific, consolidated services that the state DOT does not want any part of.

The unit should: 
  1. Develop specific uniform standards (these should be included in standard drawings and in a state MUTCD supplement)
    • Framing strap/z-bar details
    • Route assembly details
    • Detailed designs of state-specific signs such as jurisdictional signage and route signs
    • A standard procedure for posting guide signs on both numbered and unnumbered routes
  2. Create templates for commonly used guide signs
  3. Make each sign according to state/federal specifications with an inspector available to reject errors
  4. Have their own shop where the signs are created in-house instead of assigned to contractors or state prison workers.
  5. Be managed by or staffed only by professional engineers with a PTOE certification and technicians with specific training who work for the PTOE  
All guide sign workers should be specially trained in state and federal standards, and they should not be assigned to any other duty to make sure that their sole focus is on guide signs.  However, they may assist in designing and producing any text-based custom sign such as the W16-8 advance street name sign.  Although the W16-8 sign is a warning sign, it functions like a guide sign.  In addition, local governments should be able to contract with this guide sign unit thus able to purchase signs or request supervision of their local guide sign program at the expense of the local government involved.

While most warning and regulatory signs may be purchased from contractors, guide signs require a higher level of technical expertise that means that they should always be produced in-house by employees who have the knowledge, interest and expertise to do the best job.  

Another option is regionalization for this purpose.  If a regional highway system is developed with resources comparable to state levels, the region can provide this service on their own with the state government contracted with the regional road system for installation and maintenance of guide signs as well as other traffic signs.

Privatization

If a state lacks the resources or interest in handling guide sign matters directly, the state should contract this responsibility to one or more private engineering firms who handle this on a day-to-day basis.  If this is privatized, the state government should encourage local governments to latch on to the program by paying into it.  The state will incur all engineering costs, so local governments will receive guide sign planning and maintenance from the private firm according to what they pay in with planning handled by the firm and installation/maintenance furnished by a subcontractor hired by the firm itself.  With a private approach, it will hopefully assure that professional standards will always be met and that changes can be made incrementally in the absence of a federal-aid program.  While many local governments may not participate, the shared costs will mean that overall costs for guide sign installation on local roads will be lower than if the county/municipality handles it on their own.    

TYPES OF GUIDE SIGNS INCLUDED

The previous post on this issue included a list of what the state alone should handle for local governments, but if the local governments were actively participating, they should also have the option to include the fabrication of street name signs (at their own expense).  Both state and local agencies should be able to rely on this unit for the fabrication of:
  1. All text-based guide signs (D1-x, D2-x, D3-x), including large freeway guide signs
  2. Special text-based signs (custom signs not found in the MUTCD)
  3. W16-8 advance street name signs (custom warning sign)
  4. Interstate, U.S., State, and County route markers (M1-1 through M1-6) and banners (M2-x through M6-x)
  5. Specific guide sign traffic studies
THE GOALS OF THIS PLAN

Guide signs as a whole need a very integrated strategy to be useful and effective.  Information on guide signs should be consistent based on route designation, road function and directional changes from endpoint to endpoint.  If a guide sign points you to Woodville yet additional turns are required to reach Woodville that are unsigned, it is a serious problem.  Not only will you not reach Woodville, but you may end up on an unsuitable road where you run out of gas or get a flat tire.  It is not acceptable for Woodville to not appear on any sign if additional turns are required at subsequent road junctions.  It means that it has misled drivers, is not effective, and poses a liability.  This means that taking a decentralized approach is a bad idea.  

In fact, the whole process of managing guide signs should be as centralized as possible: in fact more so than any other roadway function.  While it is possible to handle regulatory and warning signs effectively on a local level, this is not the case with guide signs.  Instead of being just one duty of the state's traffic control division or local highway department, guide signs should be their own separate statewide unit that handles this responsibility exclusively.  In order to do this, as many parties need to be involved as possible since this is not as everyday of an activity as putting up a stop sign.  Standards should be clearly written, local governments should be covered in the plan (and preferably helping to fund the unit) and guide sign workers should be specifically trained to handle this matter.  The more centralized this is, the lower the material costs will be allowing for better maintenance and higher standards.

In addition, a far more engineer-centered strategy is needed.  This means that a major study should be conducted on the ENTIRE road system in every county in every state: not just on the state roads or local roads.  This should be federally-funded as well with specific grants for that purpose.  Handled on a county level covering all levels of ownership from the state level to the town level, problems can be identified in a wide scope without worrying about smaller jurisdictions.  

Friday, April 21, 2017

Shoddy Signs Spotlight: Rabun County, GA

The funny thing about non-compliance issues with traffic signs is that it is a problem that is hiding in plain sight.  Somehow, a serious safety issue just does not get the attention it deserves: perhaps because not enough people are paying attention or the problem is hidden because it looks professional.  In these cases with local agency issues, the signs themselves may be MUTCD compliant, but the engineering work is sloppy or non-existent and application sporadic.  In other cases, the engineering may be correct but the traffic signs are non-compliant with numerous issues with sign condition, fonts, post height and symbol design.  Usually, shoddy traffic engineering goes together with shoddy signage and pavement markings, suggesting a disinvestment by that agency in traffic safety and traffic control.  While most common in rural areas, it is as much of an urban problem as it is a rural problem especially in smaller municipalities carved out of larger urban counties.


While not the most egregious example, the design of these signs presents a problem to drivers approaching the intersection in a curve.  It implies that either way is through traffic instead of the curve to the left despite the fact the left arrow is larger.  The advisory sign is also not properly designed although not as bad as some other examples around the county.  Sign is located on Old U.S. 441 north of Lake Rabun Road south of Lakemont.

Sometimes, however, there are local agencies who go out on a limb and handle their assigned duty so incorrectly that photos do them plenty of justice.  We posted a golden example of this with the disgraceful practices of Cullman, AL showcased.  These are agencies that clearly have neither guidance nor will to follow proper roadway practices, and they get away with it largely because of the laissez-faire attitudes of state governments who will not penalize non-compliance possibly due to the fact that they are not even managing their own work well.  Legally their hands are also tied because of home rule laws preventing any significant interference thus there is no such thing as checks and balances in traffic engineering.  GDOT is certainly a state with its own issues with managing traffic control, so it is no surprise that Rabun County, GA was one of the latest counties to abuse their authority to maintain traffic control devices.


Prior to the late 2000's, speed limit signs were standard design.  Then this happened.  Sign is located on Old U.S. 441 southbound.

Rabun County is a mountainous county with just under 17,000 residents.  It is well known as a quasi-rural county that is also a popular weekend home destination for wealthy residents in places like Atlanta, Charlotte and parts of Florida and is also a popular retirement destination.  Because of this, the county has far more houses than it has permanent residents.  Located along the Blue Ridge Plateau, the county has some of the most stunning scenery in the state with many impressive waterfalls, beautiful forests, and a rugged landscape that is more typical of Western North Carolina or New England than the Georgia Piedmont attracting large volumes of non-local traffic during sunny weekends, summer months and holidays.  It is also a county with many dangerous roads due to abundant steep grades, sharp curves and dangerous intersections.  For this reason, the abject failure of either the state or the county to provide high quality, properly engineered traffic signs is a travesty.  The recent efforts by the county show a very half-hearted effort that calls for immediate correction.  Like most counties in Georgia, it also appears that there has never been a proper traffic study on all but a couple of these roads under local control.



If any sign highlights the inexperienced employees at Rabun County's road department, it is this sign.  This confusing mess of a sign is easily demonstrated with two MUTCD signs: a Hill (W11-7) sign and a Right Turn (W1-1R) with a 30 MPH advisory speed.  A truck advisory posted here is already too late if this condition is this hazardous!  If trucks need to be aware, it is at the beginning of the road.  The diagram above better explains this.  This wordy sign might look important, but it is dangerously non-compliant, crams a ton of information into a single sign and should be removed as quickly as possible.  If the curve really is that hazardous, the best thing they could do is install chevrons in the curve ahead with flashing lights to warn drivers if they are approaching too quickly.  These situations do not happen when traffic control is handled by qualified employees under adequate supervision and funding levels are adequate.  Apologies for the antenna in the left side of the photo.



Here is the curve described in the sign above.  While it is indeed mountainous in the location, the hazard appears to be overstated.  This is where a proper traffic study of this road would have been very useful, but the state's program to correct issues on roads like this did not have sufficient funding to correct problems like that.

Rabun County is not quite as bad as the Cullman example in that there were at least some efforts to follow standard practices.  The county uses approved fonts, for instance, though the application of those fonts is usually incorrect.  The county also partnered recently with GDOT to have four county roads re-engineered for proper signage with federal-funded replacements meaning that those roads are momentarily no longer presenting an issue until further maintenance is needed.  It also does not mean that the problems that do exist are not just as glaring and extreme on every other road.   


The sign shown here was one of the signs on Bridge Creek Road with a completely unacceptable advisory speed.  The condition was corrected when GDOT partnered with a private firm to re-engineer the warning signs on this road, but this was one of only four roads to receive this work.  Other county roads still contain massive errors like this.

The solution for this problem is not so simple.  Even if these comically bad signs are all corrected, the traffic engineering work is sloppy at best.  It is unfortunately typical that signs in mountainous areas are very inconsistent due to the lack of any consistent policy nationwide for curve warning, chevron and arrow signs.  To make matters worse, those roads that Rabun County contracted to GDOT for help on used the same engineering practices they used in the Piedmont meaning they were extremely oversigned: an issue that will also worsen the issues with maintenance.  This oversigning is partly due to GDOT lacking any internal policy where curve warning signs in mountainous terrain may only be posted when a speed reduction is required.  In fact, those four roads that were re-engineered have far more signs than the county has resources to maintain them.  For example, in a series of S-curves on Warwoman Road, nearly continuous chevrons were posted in lieu of just lowering the speed limit along that stretch so that they would not be required.


Neon non-compliance.  A "SLOW" sign, long removed from the MUTCD, is placed in neon colors (pedestrian?) with a Blind Drive sign.  This was also on Bridge Creek Road, so it has likely been corrected but may exist in a similar condition elsewhere in the county.


Design fail here on Black Rock Mountain Road, the county-maintained spur to Black Rock Mountain State Park.  Neither the advisory nor curve sign are correctly designed on a post about 2' off the ground.

GDOT's lack of direct funding or oversight of local traffic control work also poses a problem.  In all, Rabun County's terrain mainly calls for engineering corrections only on these longer and more heavily traveled mountain roads where other less important roads with continuous hairpin curves can be corrected by either setting the speed limit to match the determined advisory speed for a majority of curves or in the case of residential roads not posting these signs at all.

DIRECTIONAL CONFUSION: MISGUIDED GUIDE SIGNS

Another issue are the county's guide signs.  Many important attractions and small towns are found off the state highway system especially in the southwestern part of the county, so posting guide signs for the purpose of tourism is of heightened importance.  The state marks these attractions only along US 441 south of Clayton, but does not usually mark them elsewhere.  However, the county enacted their own guide sign program within the last 10-15 years posting guide signs at major intersections throughout the county.  The problem is that these were poorly planned and designed guide signs that clearly were not authorized by a traffic engineer, are poorly laid out and do not reflect the shortest and best routes.  While their heart was in the right place, this is something that the state should have provided assistance with and/or a PTOE should have planned or reviewed.  All of these guide signs should have been coordinated with state roads, and if these roads had proper warning signs, regulatory signs and truck restrictions posted on the most mountainous roads (such as Lake Rabun Road), the state could have even routed through traffic along some of these roads as the shortest and best route.  For example, traffic coming from Helen along GA 197 could use a combination of Burton Dam Road, Bridge Creek Road and Old US Hwy 441 as a shorter and less winding route to reach Tiger and Clayton, but currently traffic is routed along the windier and longer GA 197 and US 76 simply because the better route is under local jurisdiction.


Signage on Germany Road at Black Rock Mountain Road has the correct colors and fonts, but it has poor design with arrows in the wrong place, too small to see and an improper application of destinations.  "Mtn City" does not need "GA" (it is in the same state), Black Rock Mtn should have "State Park" spelled out and on a brown sign and the directional "N" is not needed with US 441.  The borders are also incorrect.


Another guide sign posted on Blue Ridge Gap Road at Wolffork Road further demonstrates the issues with these signs.  The layout is completely wrong.  The image below shows how the sign should preferably appear.


While 6" text would be ideal on this sign above (4" is used like the original sign), the design is far closer to MUTCD standards than the sign in the image above.  In addition, a major destination is added for northbound traffic that is missing from the current sign considering that prevailing traffic is going northbound on US 441.

Counties like Rabun County are important, because they dispel the myth that local roads do not need the same effort as the state because local traffic "knows the roads".  The problem is that this area frequently has lots of traffic from people who are not from the area who are exploring the back roads looking for the many lakes, waterfalls, recreation areas, property for sale and/or visiting historic areas such as Lakemont.  This means that both the state and the county have a responsibility to provide a consistent driving experience both on the state highway system and off the state highway system.  Considering that the county overall does an acceptable job in other areas of road maintenance with smooth, reasonably well-built roads, the solution clearly will require a cooperative effort with resources outside of the county.  

ECONOMIC REALITIES: RABUN NEEDS TO LOOK OUTSIDE THE COUNTY FOR HELP

While the local government can theoretically fix the problem on its own, the reality is that Rabun County is a low population county.  Because of this, any local effort would take an excessive chunk of the budget with not enough trained employees to assure that it is being handled correctly and a very large tab for engineering studies and consultants.  One potential solution that could be pursued is hiring an IMSA-certified traffic control technician sponsored by a PE, but that PE would likely operate outside the county thus still requiring a regional effort.  That is by no means a guaranteed solution, but it would help with the most glaring issues.


For this reason, it would be best for the county if they would consider becoming one of the pioneers in pursuing a regional traffic control plan.  The first step the county could take is to partner with a neighboring county by merging their traffic control units.  It just so happens that Rabun County borders Habersham County, a county with a traffic engineer who appears to be especially knowledgeable about traffic control and has invested heavily in the county's signs.  Rabun County could agree to share the cost of funding the county engineer based on proportion of population to the population of both counties combined (meaning Rabun County would cover 27% of the cost).  The cost savings for Habersham could be used for Habersham to help fund initial traffic studies for Rabun with the difference or to furnish them with traffic control devices.  This would cost far less than the county attempting to figure this out on their own.  Consider how this would work if the two counties combined costs:

  • Habersham County has a population of 43,752 (2014)
  • Rabun County has a population of 16,243 (2014)
  • The combined populations of both counties is 59,995
  • Thus Rabun County's population ratio divided by the combined population is 27%

Under this combined effort, Rabun County could then provide a budget for the county engineer to work with allowing him the authority to oversee county traffic control, combine purchases, use a single sign shop for both counties and share costs.  It would be a win-win for both counties.  Habersham County saves money on a traffic engineer in turn for Rabun County receiving better supervision for a critical county service.  If the county engineer's salary is, for example, $85,000 a year then Rabun County contributes $22,950 in turn for Habersham providing an equivalent sum in traffic studies, traffic signs and pavement markings.



More proof that these are not isolated incidences of weird, shabby signs.  The 35 MPH advisory is at least correctly sized on the second sign, but the "ADVISORY" information is redundant.  Perhaps a pedestrian crossing sign might be more appropriate as this second sign is entering the village of Lakemont.


Corrected since this photo, but also redundant (Bridge Creek Road)

LARGER GOALS

The combination of the two county's traffic control units and engineering units should not be where it stops. While the combination will result in better roads and huge cost savings for both counties, no special reason exists that it has to end with two counties.  If the fusion of two counties for roads is successful, then the two agencies should then try to recruit other counties in the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission boundaries to join them starting with counties that are bordered by both counties.  This means first Towns and Stephens Counties.  Like Rabun, neither county has a traffic engineer hired and neither have the resources to provide adequate traffic control services on their own.  Before this is done, however, both Rabun and Habersham should turn to the cities within to also combine traffic control with the counties.  If those counties and cities agree to join then they can attempt to recruit more adjoining counties and cities within such as White, Banks, Franklin and even Hall County.


Beautiful scenery surrounds this atrocious assembly with the completely unnecessary "CAUTION" plaque (a W16-8 street name would be better), improperly sized W2-1 and advisory speed on an incorrectly sized 24" x 18" blank. 

The idea here is that because most of the counties are incapable of adequately providing these specific public services to proper levels on their own, they begin to form a regional highway system starting with traffic control.  Obviously, organic growth of a regional highway system is a fertile ground to test regional transportation solutions.  It is not a permanent solution, but it is necessary to prove to state leaders that combining specific roadway functions without transferring ownership to a larger agency could be successful.  If no counties are willing to pioneer the concept, then the state is also not likely to pursue it.


Limited Sight Distance was removed from the MUTCD in 1988, but the design is what makes this worse.  It is hard to read from any distance and is proportioned strangely.

Let us consider that Rabun County is now formed into what is now known as the (entirely fictional) Tallulah Falls Local Roads Cooperative.  The Tallulah Falls Local Roads Cooperative is now an agency spanning seven counties.  We will assume in this instance that Hall County declined.  The new cooperative has the following duties:

  • Traffic Engineering
    • Each partner county pays a percentage of the salaries of all staff engineers based on the ratio of the county population divided by the population of all member counties combined
    • In turn, each partner county receives engineering services or safety improvements based on need
      • Note that the Rabun-Habersham exchange model will not work with more than two partners
      • Services rendered will be considered free based on the operations costs, but costs for materials must be funded by each member jurisdiction
    • Additional traffic engineers or technicians hired must be agreed upon by all parties
  • Traffic Control
    • All purchases are combined for all traffic sign materials, pavement markings and guardrails
    • A central sign shop is developed for in-house materials
      • This is needed primarily for the production of custom signs including street name signs, guide signs and special warning/regulatory signs
      • Not all traffic control devices will be produced in-house
    • The centralized traffic engineering unit supervises all installation and maintenance of traffic control devices
    • Each member agency receives in traffic control what they put into it.  
      • This means that if Rabun County budgets a retainer $10,000 in a single year for traffic signs and pavement markings, the central traffic control unit will be permitted to spend that much in Rabun County
      • Anything not spent in that year will be rolled over into next year's budget for that agency
  • Leadership
    • A committee is formed out of existing elected leaders (one from each county and city participating) that oversees the activities and budget of the local roads cooperative
    • The committee supervises engineers and other employees in the cooperative making the final decisions on hiring, firing, policies and standards
    • The committee meets jointly per request of committee members

As to the combined population and ratios for the Tallulah Falls Local Roads Cooperative, here is how it breaks down:

  1. Seven counties (including cities) with a combined population of 165,102
    • The combined counties have changed the population characteristics for road funding from a series of rural counties to that of a small urban county such as adjacent Hall County
    • This means that the resources could then be distributed like a more urbanized county
  2. Very low payment ratios required of each county since they have similar population characteristics
    • Habersham, the highest in population, would be required to pay 26.5% of the cost for a traffic engineering unit vs. 100% of the cost now for their own county
    • Towns, the lowest in population, would be required to pay 6.7% of the cost for a traffic engineering unit for which they currently have none
    • If three engineers were hired at $100,000 a piece, the cost for Habersham would be likely less than the cost for one full-time engineer while for Towns County would be $20,100.  For Towns County, this is the equivalent to one full-time employee earning $9.66/hour.  

So we can assume now that the Tallulah Falls Local Roads Cooperative is a roaring success.  Everyone is happy with the results, and road maintenance in the boundaries of the cooperative is noticeably better than before and is also better than surrounding counties.  To many, this would be a place to stop but informal committees like this have a way of falling apart.  While it may be sunshine today, a dispute between two county commissioners could unravel the entire structure tomorrow.  This is why this strategy should be considered a pilot project lasting no more than five years.  If the cooperative plan is successful, the next step should be to put it in state law letting the legislature further define the duties, responsibility, funding and organization of a local cooperative.  Having the state involved also opens the opportunity for state funding for each unit.


Another badly designed sign on Black Mountain State Park Road.

INCORPORATION INTO A REGIONAL OR STATEWIDE COOPERATIVE PLAN

At this point, the state legislature has taken notice of the Tallulah Falls Local Roads Cooperative and is impressed at how successful it works vs. the separate county road systems.  The state then takes one of two tactics: expands the concept statewide transforming the regional cooperative into a statewide cooperative or it creates other regions around the state including an expanded and reconfigured Tallulah Falls Local Roads Cooperative.  With the state mandating that each county becomes part of a cooperative, it suddenly becomes even cheaper and easier for the cooperative to afford high quality road maintenance.  The newly drawn region, however, changes in characteristics with Franklin departing for a new region while three new counties are tacked onto the existing cooperative.  In all, this fantasy scenario points out that that when a county does not have what it needs that combining operations with adjacent counties is a cost-effective way to eliminate that problem.

THE BEST SOLUTION FOR RABUN COUNTY

In this scenario that was presented, what is clear is that the county is not doing their job correctly and that existing leadership being made aware of the problem is neither a guarantee that anything will be done about it nor is it an effective way to fix the problem.  While the issues are worse today, they only became obvious because a poorly funded, poorly trained and poorly staffed county agency attempted a greater effort than in the past without the management, training or experience necessary to do it the right way.  It was not exactly better before.  The difference in the past was that the county simply lacked traffic control on almost any roads.  Even if everything existing today was replaced in kind with the right materials, it would still be wrong because the engineering problems would not be fixed.  It is simply not an area that is their expertise, and the situation was worse because they did the work themselves without the knowledge on how to properly design traffic control devices rather than just purchase materials from a proper vendor.  They certainly saved money by doing it themselves, but the resulting signs were disastrously non-compliant.

For this reason, the only economical solution is to stop trying to do it themselves.  Because of the small population of the county, the county's options to fix traffic control issues is twofold:
  • Transfer the responsibility to GDOT (not currently offered to any county or city)
  • Combine resources with one or more counties so that trained staff and adequate resources are available to do what Rabun County cannot seem to handle (starting with Habersham County)
Hiring a private engineering firm may also be a consideration, but the costs involved would probably be excessive for meeting those goals.  The use of private firms for public roads should be something brokered by the state on behalf of the counties, and this is explained in the Private Option of the Statewide Cooperative Plan.



Improperly designed "Narrow Bridge" sign with dangerous guardrails and no object markers posted on a very narrow bridge.

Creating regional traffic control solutions need to become common discussion around Georgia as a means to assure that public safety is treated as something of high importance.  With such a high number of counties, relying on county government is not an effective solution to this problem as this post demonstrates.  Exposure of the problem may lead to some small changes, but they would not be enough to correct the overall situation.  The overall situation is a lack of coordination among properly trained employees, and a lack of economies of scale needed to make sure the most can be done with the least resources.  The better solution is to stop looking within for the answers when it involves rural counties such as Rabun and to start looking at ways of handing this responsibility to qualified professionals.

The Steps to Creating a Regional Road System

The idea of a regional government agency maintaining roads is a new and entirely experimental concept.  While State and Local Road Reform believes that it will be successful beyond expectations if laid out correctly, the bureaucracy involved in creating it may be difficult, but the struggle to find 3 or more partners to test out the concept continues.  From small government politicians who view any consolidation efforts with suspicion to local governments who are reluctant to relinquish any control for the benefit of taxpayers or service quality, any kind of effort that joins multiple government agencies to provide a single service for something that has never been tried will be difficult to achieve.

The best way to begin a regional concept is to start small and then start putting the pieces together.  It should also be generally noted that a regional road system is presented pretty much one of two ways:

  1. An umbrella organization jointly-funded combining a portion of as little as one to all departments into one entity
    • Regional schools, libraries, parks and water systems already exist, but for some reason roads are never done this way
    • With roads this would involve either a traffic control cooperative or full maintenance to achieve those benefits
  2. A highway system where multiple agencies combine resources to create their own department of transportation overseeing road maintenance in multiple cities and counties
    • This is more of a "farm-to-market" strategy where multiple local agencies decide that certain roads serve a regional purpose and jointly fund the maintenance of those roads
    • A version of this already exists in states with townships where the county highway department is a regional agency designed to relieve townships and municipalities of the direct cost associated with higher classification roadways

It is important to note that when a regional road system begins, any consolidation of local road departments comes later.  That consolidation must be limited to certain conditions and should not happen until the core regional highway system is fully established and working.  Before anything else is done, a logical framework must be established.  As mentioned, this framework already exists in states that have active townships, but it does not exist in states where the county is the only functioning government entity in an unincorporated area and townships do not exist.

The first thing to realize is that a regional road plan is not likely to be adopted on any acceptable level in a rural area unless it is part of a broader strategy.  While a gentleman's agreement might exist between two counties or cities within the counties for services, it is neither a formal agreement nor is it binding.  Such agreements are also likely to be overlooked by policy planners who can promote regional coordination of services.  Handshake agreements typically dissolve over political disputes or because population increases make the agreement no longer financially necessary.  Typically such agreements are established not out of the drive for efficiency or better services but because of either an extremely small tax base or harsh economic conditions that force a joint agreement.  Rarely are these agreements for road maintenance, and they hardly ever exist outside of areas with very low populations.  A broader strategy would require a large number of counties to combine services meaning that, unlike in an urban area, the rural regional road system would cover a considerably large geographic area: often similarly sized to New England states.

Regional services do sometimes exist in urban areas, but also rarely for road maintenance.  The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority is one example covering four counties in Northern Virginia.  Regional school districts are rarer, and most agreements usually relate to utilities.  One noted regional school district is Randolph-Clay High School, a joint high school between the two otherwise separate school districts in Randolph and Clay Counties in Georgia.  Even this joint venture seems to be born in desperation.  Randolph has 7,719 residents and Clay has 3,183.  Union and Towns County, GA once shared a jail, but a dispute in 1995 led to both counties having to build their own jails at great expense to the taxpayers.  Transit agencies tend to be the most common regional services, but they are usually operated by a union of local agencies and not typically supervised by the states involved nor the federal government.  Clearly, regionalism has never gained any broad support, and the major reason is that it has never been built on a consistent, solid framework.  This framework would require a clear plan built on specific rules and consistent parameters and would work best when sponsored by state government with state laws that dictate responsibilities, boundaries, divisions of responsibility and funding.

Considering the murky history of regionalism, a regional plan must be developed that has clear goals and iron-clad rules in an area where other public officials and media will take notice.  Thus, a regional road system must ideally be developed as an urban plan in a high population area.  It must be public, and it must be a major and permanent change.  It cannot be hidden inside the walls of a rickety courthouse in a county with less than 4,000 residents.  It must be a game-changing strategy that gains steam and evolves over a relatively short period of time.  The steps will thus be described:

THE STEPS TO CREATE A REGIONAL ROAD SYSTEM
  1. Initial Agreement: a high-population local agency contracts with at least two other bordering high-population entities
    • A single, high population county begins a pilot project to obtain the rights to maintain traffic control on major surface streets within the limits of at least two cities and towns either within the county or in a bordering suburban city or town
    • Bordering suburban cities or towns jointly contract traffic control services with the intent on recruiting more bordering cities
    • The success of the traffic control pilot is important before the next step is taken
  2. Further Recruitment: the pilot region attempts to contract with additional cities, towns or counties within the same region
    • Ideally, this strategy restricts the agreement to a specific planning region, but cities, towns and counties in bordering regions are acceptable partners until the region becomes more clearly defined
  3. Expansion/Transfer of Powers: once the region is established, negotiations begin to transfer more responsibilities to the regional road agency
    • One strategy involves the creation of a highway system where certain roads are the sole responsibility of the region with financing on a per-mile basis charged to the member agency
    • Another involves the consolidation of all local road agencies within the regional boundaries into a regional DOT after an agreement is made on how much each partner is willing to contribute for operations and for routine maintenance
    • Many agencies within the region may choose to retain only the traffic control agreement keeping road maintenance separate
      • they should not be forced to change to the full maintenance model
      • however, they should be encouraged to at least allowing certain roads and streets to be solely the responsibility of the region
  4. Promotion: if desirable results are achieved from the creation of a consolidated regional DOT, recruit other counties, cities and towns in other regions to form either their own regional systems or a larger cooperative
    • This is where member agencies that are outside the planning region attempt to recruit bordering counties, cities and townships to join the cooperative
    • If enough cities/towns/townships outside the planning region form a large enough population to operate separate from the initial region, they should split off from the first region
    • However, if the bordering region is in a rural area, they may choose to instead develop a statewide cooperative that allows rural areas to pool resources statewide instead of within the region itself
    • Promote the concept to trade organizations  
  5. Legality: this is where the regions that exist transfer from informal agreements into formal agreements by pursuing a change in the state's legal code to make the regions permanent
    • The state develops a set of laws to encode the agreements, terms, funding methods, division of powers and boundaries
    • The state then helps broker other agreements across the state where many counties and municipalities have chosen to opt out.
    • The state also creates added incentives by agreeing to transfer funding from the state level to the regions to help offset operational costs associated with operating a regional road system
    • Regional highway agencies thus become partially independent of local agencies allowing them to begin to offer additional services, unify funding and develop unified standards thus making them operate as a "state within a state"
  6. Establishment: this is where the regional road system is now an official means of providing road maintenance statewide in lieu of the state or local governments
    • The regional road system means a multi-county, multi-jurisdictional maintenance authority in charge of maintenance of higher classification county roads, traffic control on all roadway classifications and/or contracted to provide maintenance on roads in many other jurisdictions
    • Regional road responsibility is for maintenance only with construction funding retained on a local level unless otherwise encoded by the state or agreed to on a regional basis
  7. Further Reforms: this is where the regional road system has been established as an entity capable of providing road maintenance services similar to the state meaning that restructuring happens among many agencies:
    • Counties, townships and municipalities will be able to contract all road maintenance to the region at their own expense
    • Regions will either swap services with the state (see the Local Exchange Plan) or contract to provide all road maintenance on state roads on behalf of the state DOT in exchange for per-mile funding
    • The state highway system is restructured to transfer more funding and responsibility to the regions
INITIAL AGREEMENT

It is important to note the issues that local agencies face, and one of those is the inability to obtain adequate populations to run a high standard road system.  A political hiccup on a county level or weak laws in regards to annexation by cities can quickly drain a fast-growing county of resources, and some states such as Tennessee and Texas have weak annexation laws and strongly favor municipalities over counties for transportation funding.  Likewise, cities and towns can be too small and/or landlocked thus unable to expand to provide adequate services.  Issues such as this have resulted in many county-city mergers: a bad policy that has often been regretted by the citizens of those areas.  City-county mergers such as Nashville or Jacksonville are also a strong barrier to true regionalism making the combined entity more insular in regards to the needs of the region as a whole.

Consider, for instance, Montgomery County, TN.  The county as a whole appears to be a high population county that should have high quality county resources.  With a population of 172,331 the county itself is the 7th most populous in the state.  It should be one of the best funded and most efficient counties in the state, but the reality is that it is in fact a rural county in terms of its ability to deliver public services.  This is because the county's sole municipality, Clarksville, absorbs most of the tax base and population.  With a city population of 132,957 this leaves an unincorporated county population of 39,374.  Thus, the county itself is semi-rural thus weak in its ability to provide public services.  Many might say that the city and county should simply combine departments or consolidate, but is this a reasonable outcome?  Shared service agreements do not always work, and the reality is that both that the county and city would work better together on at least some services.  Cities are always smaller than counties by land area and usually by population.  At the very least, the city and county should combine traffic control even if they otherwise remain separate, and partnering with any bordering county for this purpose should be considered as well.  The initial agreement between the city and county could lead to further agreements if pursued systematically while keeping the agencies otherwise separate.


County road maintenance should not always end at the city limit sign, especially if the road is an arterial or collector.  Haynes Bridge Road in Fulton County, GA is a minor arterial, but was removed from Fulton County's road system in 2007 due to the incorporation of Johns Creek (in the opposite direction behind this image).  In steps 1-3 to create a regional road system, both the stretch through Alpharetta seen here and in Johns Creek in the opposite direction would return to the control of the county while adjoining local streets would remain under control of the individual cities (Image from Google Street View).

The Montgomery County example plays out all across the state.  Consider the chart below showing five metropolitan counties in Tennessee aside from Montgomery.  Of these five examples, a tremendous amount of the county tax base is depleted by the cities and towns with exception to Knox County.  Other examples could have been used, but they included cities crossing county lines meaning no information was available as to the population of all municipalities within only one county.  Nashville/Davidson County was also not included in this case study because the road system (and government) is already consolidated.


In this chart, five of Tennessee's highest population counties are shown with their incorporated populations compared to unincorporated.  While all counties have some depletion of tax base due to cities within, several cases are extreme especially in Shelby, Rutherford and Williamson Counties.  It is unfortunately that the most urbanized counties that lose population and funding to cities and towns.  At present, no regional services are offered meaning that the counties pretty much take care of what hasn't been annexed into a city greatly limiting their ability to provide high quality, low cost county services.

This issue was highlighted in a prior post about Fulton County, GA.  In all the counties listed, these counties should at the very least begin sharing traffic control responsibility since the cities themselves are better organized for that purpose and both sides could see significant cost savings by sharing with each other.  County standards would improve, organization would improve, and city costs would decrease.  

It is stated above that the county needs to be "high population".  This means that instead of applying this statewide right away, it needs to begin as a pilot project with at least three entities contracted together in an area where combining the population would truly produce higher service levels.  Rutherford County is a great example with Murphreesboro, Smyrna and LaVergne combined having 181,317 residents or 69% of the county population.  What does this leave the county?  Not enough, for sure.  If all three cities combined with the county for traffic control, all would be in a much better position to provide this service while each would otherwise retain their separate identities and street departments.

With nearly 300,000 residents: Rutherford is a perfect example of the initial approach.  Preferably, any counties and municipalities who test this strategy should have a combined population of 250,000 residents but preferably 500,000 or more residents where a significant portion of the county is under municipal control and the county stands to gain substantial technical and financial resources by sharing that service.  If a low population county is used, it will be more difficult to determine if this approach is effective because the resources will still be too low, technical expertise will still not be available and cost savings will not necessarily result in higher standards since it will still not be an engineer-driven approach.  Consider an example involving a county with 25,000 taking over maintenance of major streets in a city with 1,500 people.  The net outcome will be negligible although the frequency of maintenance might improve slightly.  With the pilot county, the consolidation of services in this fashion will need to be analyzed for potential expansion statewide based on cost analysis and quality of service delivery, and this will be most effective when used with a large population county that already has a high tax base and better economies of scale.

FURTHER RECRUITMENT

Rutherford County in the example above is part of Greater Nashville.  The county alone will likely have its needs adequately met with the contract with the three cities, but why not take things further?  Other counties stand to benefit as well that are located in the MPO.  The next logical partner is neighboring Williamson County.  With a population in the unincorporated county of 100,000, the county would likely appreciate a cost-sharing program with Rutherford County to provide traffic control.  Williamson would then likely bring in the cities in its county with the program potentially having a combined population of over 500,000 making it an ideal program to expand into a true regional system.  They could also contract with Cannon County, a county with much lower population.  The combined entity could possibly waive, at least in the first year, an operations fee due to low population while providing traffic control services based on what Cannon County is able to contribute.

Note that each member contributes based on population ratios.  This means that if the combined population is 500,000 and Cannon County has only 14,000 residents, their operations fee ratio would be 2.8%.  This is not high for the more populous agencies in the cooperative, but this might be steep for Cannon County.  If the operations costs for the combined agencies are $500,000, then Cannon County would have to pay in $14,000: likely a lot more than they typically budget for traffic control in a given year.  This is why a traffic control-only agreement would need to cover a far larger number of jurisdictions or the services rendered might need to be expanded into a full service agreement to normalize such costs.

EXPANSION/TRANSFER OF POWERS

In the example above, let us assume that the entire Nashville MPO aside from Nashville-Davidson and one other county joins a traffic control cooperative.  As part of the agreement, counties and cities with under 25,000 residents are exempted from operations fees putting that cost on the larger counties and cities.  This means that instead of a bunch of cities and counties duplicating this service to widely varying results, one agency is doing it and doing it well, but the agreement is still not ideal.  Nonetheless, the results are so successful that the member counties and cities decide to take things a step further and combine road departments under the cooperative in those counties that do not pay operations fees.  The more rural counties in the region (six in total, including Cannon), push this approach as it is more beneficial to them to have their entire road maintenance operation folded into the regional system than just to provide traffic control.  Inversely, many cities in the region do not wish to have their entire street departments folded into the cooperative feeling they can do a better job.  Here is what ultimately was the outcome of this pretend scenario:

  • Nashville/Davidson remained out (did not join the regional road district)
  • Five other cities retain only the traffic control agreement (all were higher population)
  • Three other cities agree only to have certain higher classification streets owned/maintained by the region (keeping the traffic control agreement)
  • All counties (including consolidated Trousdale) and three cities combined their entire road departments into the region.


While a "farm-to-market" approach was allowed in those three cities, the prevailing option chosen was to create a regional road system that included centralization of all road maintenance to the MPO level without Nashville.  In all, 13 counties combined under this system.  The new agency was named the Greater Nashville Department of Transportation.

PROMOTION

In this fictional scenario, counties outside of the Nashville region became interested in this new program.  A few were interested in participating as well, but they were too far away to join.  Others asked to join even though they were not part of the MPO.  One of these was Montgomery County, who ultimately felt they were better served as part of the Greater Nashville Department of Transporation (the name of the fictional regional agency) than combined with Clarksville, who was otherwise uninterested in joining.  Within two years, 25 counties were joined (1/4 of the state), and others were interested in joining as well.  Seeing that this was a successful strategy, the Nashville MPO proposed the creation of the Tennessee Local Roads Commission to study the creation of a cooperative for all counties across the state to join since the state otherwise lacks regional planning commissions.  With 35 more counties and 43 cities interested, the legislature took notice and began to question the legality of this operation and met with the MPO to discuss how to handle this.  Initially skeptical and ready to strike down this new regional agreement, the MPO worked hard to convince them that roads were better and that cost savings were significant.  The legislature was unhappy that they were not consulted in this plan and that TDOT was left out of this concept even though several counties had asked the state for years to take over their roads to no avail.

LEGALITY

After two years of talks with legislators, an agreement was made with the MPO to start the Tennessee Local Roads Commission.  The state agreed to the rules already created for the Greater Nashville Department of Transportation for fund-sharing (population ratios), and they codified into law that any county or municipality can enter a contract for road maintenance with a regional cooperative.  However, some things were changed due to the reluctance of the regions to permit programs that weakened local control.  What was ultimately decided was:


  • The farm-to-market strategy was shot down
  • Only cities were permitted to enter agreements exclusively for traffic control while counties who were members had to transfer the entire road maintenance operation over (luckily all counties had already done so)
  • To preserve a separation of powers, the legislature also forbade the combined entity from taking over any road maintenance from TDOT.  This was due to TDOT concerns about layoffs.  
  • No new cities or counties could join without further legislative review and approval
  • Regions were only permitted to provide road maintenance and were not permitted to finance major construction


The MPO was somewhat disappointed, but they were relieved that the bulk of the program was being preserved.  However, the positive change was that the legislature changed the state funding ratios giving an additional 1% to each region to help fund operational costs allowing member agencies to not have to share costs for engineering and operations.  This helped to drive up interest in rural counties of joining who were initially reluctant due to operations fees.

ESTABLISHMENT

Five years after the legislature codified the regional agreements, the Tennessee Local Roads Commission had developed four regions that matched the TDOT regions.  This means that the Greater Nashville Department of Transportation morphed into the Middle Tennessee Department of Transportation with the other four known as the Delta Regional DOT, Cumberland Highlands Regional DOT and Tennessee Valley DOT.  All four work entirely separate from TDOT serving their respective regions.  Thus, road maintenance that had previously been supervised by 94 out of 95 counties was now being managed by four regional DOT's.

When the program was fully established, all counties except Davidson had joined the system and all but about 10 cities, including Nashville (as part of Davidson), had traffic control agreements with the region.  TDOT continued to maintain their own roads, but by this point had ended all maintenance agreements with cities due to their joining the regional DOT's instead.  By this point, TDOT was beginning to reconsider their role in transportation due to the fact that pretty much every county was able to maintain its own roads at levels at or above state levels due to supervision by the regional DOT's when that was not possible before.

FURTHER REFORMS

TDOT began to see their need for a larger state road system diminished, and a proposal was put in front of the legislature to terminate the restriction on local farm-to-market roads in turn for greater state-aid to regional DOT's and a transfer of all responsibility for the secondary state roads to the regions.  TDOT traditionally had always had a small role in maintenance until the road system was expanded in 1983, and with only 15% of the roads under state control, the state decided to drop that responsibility to 10%.  Thus, the legislature agreed to the changes and the following occurred:


  1. Ownership and maintenance of all secondary state routes was transferred to the regions along with a greater share of state-aid funding
    • Regions had to continue maintaining the triangle route signs, but they added the regional code onto each sign at the base of the triangle (R1-R4).  
    • The secondary routes, renamed regional routes was expanded to include an additional 5% of the road system thus the combined state/regional total was 10%
  2. The policy was changed on TDOT contracting with the regions for road maintenance.
    • Three regions ultimately chose to remain separate, but the Tennessee Valley DOT decided it was in their best interest to take over maintenance of all state routes in the region.
    • TDOT thus made per-mile transfer payments to the Tennessee Valley DOT region and transferred all materials, equipment and employees
JURISDICTIONAL ISSUES


Some other issues need to be addressed in regards to creating regional roads as regional roads will not be the same as state highways: not only will they define a smaller region, but their powers will be limited.

  1. Control: most roads maintained by the regional cooperative/regional DOT will not actually be owned by them.
    1. Concessions have to be made to meet local needs such as full cooperation when city plans differ from regional standards.
    2. Urban areas may seek to have completely different standards on certain roads and streets, thus the need to allow certain jurisdictions to contract only certain roads and streets.
      • This is especially true in cities where maintenance gaps may be needed through historic districts, downtown areas and special corridors
      • An instance like this can be found in Reidsville, NC where Scales St. is a state-maintained secondary road on each side of downtown but is city-maintained through the downtown area.  
  2. Traffic Laws: speed limits and traffic control ordinances must respect local needs
    1. Regional cooperatives should be forbidden from setting speed limits on any roads they do not actually own
      • The regional cooperative may recommend or study a speed limit, but if they do not actually have ownership of the road they may not set that speed limit
    2. Local ordinances and restrictions are set by the local agency, not the regional cooperative
  3. Overlaying jurisdiction: regional roads functioning as secondary state routes
    1. If regional responsibility is not comprehensive, then regional roads should function as highways
    2. This means that the road maintenance responsibility continues under regional supervision when entering a city, town or another county similar to state routes if roadway is of regional importance.
    3. Overlaying jurisdiction is not necessary on roadways that are not of regional importance, but at the very least traffic control and route designations, if used, should begin and end at logical endpoints for proper route continuity and information.


In Wisconsin, all counties maintain state routes as well as their own county roads.  In addition, county roads pass through incorporated towns.  This approach helps to better fund counties and unify road standards.  Most counties follow state standards (Image from Google Street View).

OTHER REGIONAL PILOT PROJECT STRATEGIES

The design for regional systems is based primarily on regional planning districts, but the design of these districts is not always uniform.  The base concept for starting a regional roads program begins with metropolitan statistical areas and counties that lay just outside of the area.  In fact, the creation of regional services on a single county level or shared among municipalities/townships within a county is seen as a first large step in the process.  

If a more scientific approach is used to select regional pilot projects, two regions will be selected: a high population region and a medium population region.  In these, only counties within a single MSA will be combined for road maintenance, and cities within those counties will be required to participate.  For the pilot project, two areas will be chosen.  In the first, the initial high population county will be required to combine with a neighboring high population county who also developed their own regional county highway system to join their two county-wide regional systems together.  Only county highways will be included with functionally local county roads excluded from the system.  Office space will be leased for up to a year in a central location and a portion of the employees from the two agencies will be combined to control the two road systems together as a single unit.  The population of the two counties combined must exceed 1,000,000 residents.


This map shows Texas MSA's.  Regional road systems should evolve around these MSA's and if necessary combined when an MSA population is too low.

The other pilot region will include a medium-sized city and will do the same, but will combine all road maintenance.  Whether or not a regional highway system was developed is negligible in the second pilot project.  In this region, the combined population of the pilot operation should be no less than 100,000 residents but no more than 300,000 residents.  In this pilot region, only one county should have a population exceeding 100,000 residents with preferably all other counties within the region below 50,000 residents.  The pilot project should also not include a consolidated city-county.  The region will in this case operate from the highest population county thus combining forces with the lower population counties.  In this strategy, the highest population county will assume control of all county roads in the lower population counties with all employees retained in every county.  Supervision in the outlying counties will be handled by the county engineering department in the highest population county, and traffic control functions will be consolidated into the highest population county.  

The goal of the two pilot projects is to test metropolitan road districts and rural regional road districts.  The pilots will find out whether a superregional road maintenance pact can work (developing regional highways separate from county roads and municipal streets in high population counties) and whether a rural regional district can work (all county road maintenance in multiple counties combined into a single region) based on the initial concept.  If both projects are successful, this would lead to the rollout of a statewide program for regional road districts.  In both regions tested, the regions would also be expanded per boundaries drawn statewide covering all counties across the state.  The failure of the projects would not necessarily mean the termination of the project, but it would mean that further study and testing of each strategy would be needed to create a situation where overall costs are reduced, organization is improved, economies of scale improved and thresholds established for continued local control on other roads and streets.  In a worse case scenario, another region would have to be selected for testing.

Examples of potential pilot projects and the regional planning commissions they fall in are as follows:

Superregional:
  1. Cameron and Hidalgo Counties, TX
  2. Cobb and Cherokee Counties, GA
  3. Jefferson and Shelby Counties, AL
Regional (Small City):
  1. Wichita Falls, TX (Wichita, Archer and Clay Counties)
  2. Savannah, GA (Chatham, Bryan and Effingham Counties)
  3. Clarksville, TN (Montgomery and Stewart Counties)

A NEW IDEA NEEDS TIME TO BE SUCCESSFUL

Many ideas have been presented over the years to cut costs and improve the quality of roads under local control.  All have had limited success, but none have been broadly adopted.  The regional model may be a tough sell much as the North Carolina plan was in the 1930's (it was ultimately adopted in only six states, fully adopted in only three, and abandoned in two).  The regional plan is viewed as a revolutionary approach that makes a bold statement that not only are the local agencies too small, but also that the state is too big.  Would the taxpayers rather have the costs of certain state roads in a state with 10 million residents dumped on a poor rural county with 20,000 residents or on multiple regions with 500,000+ residents?  Shouldn't large metropolitan areas also have some autonomy from the state government in terms of road funding, responsibility, construction and maintenance?  These questions cannot be answered without an alternative to the prevailing model used today.

It is obviously possible that the steps presented here can be skipped for a top-down mandate to form regions as quickly as possible, but the plan presented is a radical departure from the local control model used in most states today, and a slower evolution will give time to prove to skeptical state and local agencies that it can actually work while allowing the regions to bring in talent to make sure desired results are achieved.  While some regional pacts exist, and state road maintenance of local roads can be also viewed as a regional model, it is not the same as this plan.  

The traditional nuclear model of counties and cities running their own individual road systems without any outside interference is replaced with a family of local governments combining horizontally while the centralized state control model is downsized to a more local approach.  The new agencies also do not form a new government instead functioning jointly as special districts that are both subdivisions of state government and collectives of local government.  Such a new approach may take time to evolve, but if given a chance will one day be viewed as the ideal means of operating a highway system and preferred over other methods.