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.


Monday, April 17, 2017

Statewide Contracting Plan Spotlight: Georgia

Georgia has a long history of being a strong home-rule state, so they have likewise adopted a strategy that has given counties and cities very broad powers to run their agencies as they choose.  After rejecting all efforts to centralize any responsibility to the state level for roads on three occasions in 1934, 1958 and 1985 it was clear that politics in Georgia typically favor a decentralized approach.  This was further exacerbated by the institution of a mileage cap on state roads enacted either in 1963 or 1973 that limited road mileage to an arbitrary number that has not been adjusted in over 50 years.  This ratio has further reducing the ratio of state responsibility from a high of 20% in 1963 to 14% today.  The problem with this approach is that it is a destructive transportation policy for local agencies and has made regional planning and coordination for maintenance and construction difficult with far too many competing interests and duplication of services.


A former state route in Cleveland, GA (GA 75 Spur) that would certainly benefit from a joint maintenance structure with other counties and cities, at least for traffic control.  The curve sign here dates to the early 80's and lines have long since faded out. 

While local agencies may enjoy broad powers to construct and maintain roads as they see fit, this approach is only effective in high population counties with properly organized highway agencies.  In all of Georgia's 159 counties, the vast majority are rural or very rural with 75% of the state's population in 8% of the state's land area.  This means that 92% of the state falls within a rural area thus the vast majority of counties are nowhere near prepared for the full responsibility of road maintenance.  Of this total:

  • 6 total counties have a population that exceeds 250,000
    • Note that two of those counties have recently seen significant chunks of the county's tax base divided up into new cities that took with them much or all (in the case of Fulton's) population meaning that the county provides little to no municipal services
  • 38 total counties have a population over 60,000
  • 32 total counties have populations under 10,000 residents
  • 86 total counties have populations under 25,000 residents
  • 3.8% of counties have populations adequate to operate a full-service highway agency
  • 23.8% of counties have populations adequate to support a highway agency without substantial state-aid
  • 54.0% of counties have populations much too low to be able to effectively operate a local highway agency with available local resources

With these statistics, why are all 159 counties running their own highway department?  Most are not capable of doing a good job even when they put their very best efforts forward, because they simply lack the technical expertise, resources, equipment or manpower to do so.  What about the 550 cities?  While some of those contract with counties, most are no better off when the county itself is too small to provide proper road maintenance standards on behalf of the cities.  Of those that are not, the vast majority cannot efficiently run an entirely independent street maintenance operation.


Dawson County has a population under 23,000.  While they have seen significant growth in the county, it is still a primarily rural county that lacks any engineering supervision of road maintenance and is underfunded for any significant upgrades.  Traffic control errors like the one above are still found across the county due to the lack of a traffic operations unit.  It would not make sense for the county to create this unit alone, but it would makes sense for them to be contracted in a cooperative with many other rural counties across the state to provide this service among with other road maintenance.  

However, changing an entire culture to a centralized system is not something that has ever been accomplished despite the periodic criticism that counties in Georgia are too small.  Many have proposed county mergers as a solution to the problem, but this is not an effective strategy for a number of reasons including:

  • Combined populations would likely remain too low.  
    • When at least 100,000 residents are needed to make a combined county work, it would take more than a two county merger in a rural area to make that happen.
    • The counties that proposed merging were already very low in population meaning the combined county would still be extremely low in population (likely under 10,000 residents)
  • Combining counties, especially in higher population areas, would only result in an uptick in municipal divisions making consolidation into a larger county actually increase the level of government
    • This would just further drill down road responsibilities and increase costs unless the state government made municipal divisions extremely difficult
    • The consolidation under this method becomes a political decision instead of a technical decision.  It does not address the root of the problem.
  • Merging counties on any grand scale is not a realistic proposal.  
    • Even Taliaferro County with less than 3,000 residents has not seriously put forth any plan to merge with an adjacent county
    • New larger counties with very large land areas would not be popular with residents of rural areas
    • Urbanized counties would use this as an excuse to further divide into smaller counties such as Fulton and DeKalb 
  • The number of combined counties would not be low enough to make any real difference
    • Effective county government has populations comparable to state government.  Very few counties would have populations of 500,000 or more
    • Only one or two would have that population concentrated in unincorporated areas.

A BETTER SOLUTION

One of the proposals for a cooperative system includes the farm-to-market system approach, but in Georgia this might not be the best strategy.  A simpler and easier to institute approach is for the counties and cities across the state to voluntarily form or be required to form a road maintenance cooperative pooling together engineers and technical experts to supervise maintenance and pooling together resources to provide higher standards with no cost increase and significant economies of scale.  Such a cooperative may or may not be administered completely separate from GDOT.  The cooperative would be set up as a means to give two options to all counties and cities across the state.  The name of this cooperative, if independent of GDOT, would most likely be the Georgia Local Roads Commission.  The Georgia Local Roads Commission (GLRC) would operate at one or both of two ways:

  • As a division of state government that is under limited regulatory authority of GDOT, but operates otherwise independent of GDOT
  • As a jointly-owned unit of all counties and cities statewide brokered by the Georgia Association of County Commissioners, Georgia Municipal Association and Georgia State Legislature

If part of GDOT, it would be most likely known as the Division of Local Maintenance & State Aid.  In either method:

  • As part of the agreement to form the cooperative highway agency, participation would be required in order to implement the program by all counties to some extent
  • All counties would be required to transfer engineering, installation and maintenance of traffic control and safety improvements to the cooperative unit (GLRC or DLMSA)
  • Rural counties with populations under 50,000 residents would be required to contract all routine road maintenance to the cooperative thus transferring employees, equipment and facilities to the cooperative (74.2% of counties)
  • Counties over 50,000 would be given the option to keep their own highway departments or to transfer the entire operation to the cooperative 
  • Cities would also be required to participate in that traffic control would be managed by GLRC or DLMSA.  Rural cities would be encouraged to transfer all street maintenance to the cooperative.
  • The state could provide incentives to joining the cooperative such as subsidizing operations fees

The Georgia Local Roads Commission or Division of Local Maintenance & State Aid would have the purpose of administering, not building roads.  That means that engineering services would be provided, maintenance would be provided and some resurfacing might be possible with that funding.  However, construction including designing or building roads would remain a local matter.  Rural counties could contract with the cooperative at their own expense for construction engineering, hire a private firm or use GDOT.

HOW WILL IT BE FUNDED?

The method of funding for the interlocal cooperative is based on shared resources.  Unlike a secondary state highway system, this is not a vertical means of consolidation but horizontal.  This means that although state resources would be made available to assist in operations and maintenance, the primary expense would come from the local governments that would all pay into the system.  It can be established one of two ways:

  1. The Contract Method  
    • Each member agency provides an operations fee if it is not otherwise subsidized by GDOT.  The operations fee would be based on the population ratio covering only costs of employees, equipment and facilities.  It would not cover any actual construction or maintenance.
    • Each member agency then makes its own budget thus providing a retainer for the cooperative to work with.
      • For instance, Floyd County provides $225,000 in FY 2019.  The agency may spend up to that retainer, but may not exceed it without permission from the county.  The county then reimburses the agency for what is actually spent that year and what is not spent is rolled over to the next fiscal year.
  2. The Collective Method
    • In this method, the cooperative sets a projected budget and presents it to the participating local agencies based on a sum of what each participating agency is willing to spend in that fiscal year
    • The ratio each local agency pays is based on the ratio of agency population (based on 10 year census) divided by population of all participating agencies
    • The cooperative will be legally obligated to spend in each county no more than what the county or city paid in.  
As already mentioned, state funding will also be considered for operational and nominal traffic control expenses.  In addition, the cooperative may receive additional funding through any service swapping contracts with GDOT.  The GDOT financial commitment should be around 1-3% of local state-aid funding.  This means out of a budget of $2 billion that $20 million-$60 million would fund operations and maintenance of the cooperative.  This commitment by the state will make it possible that the local financial commitment may be lowered.  For instance, if the cooperative budgets $45 million then state-aid funding would be deducted from that amount meaning that what each county pays may be much lower.

An example of each method is as follows:

The Contract Method

Rabun County is contracted for full road maintenance with the cooperative.  The county agrees to spend $200,000 in FY 2017-2018 for maintenance operations and staff.  The cooperative deducts all administrative and operational costs as needed and uses the rest to maintain roads in Rabun County.  This is actually not the best method since it will produce uneven results, but it will free the county to budget as they choose thus not infringing on local control.

The Collective Method

After gathering proposed budgets from all 159 counties and 550 cities, the Georgia Local Roads Commission has budgeted $45 million to spend in FY 2018-2019.  Pickens County has 29,431 residents as of the 2010 census while Georgia has 9,687,653 as of 2010.  This means that from 2010-2020 that Pickens County has an 0.3% financial commitment to that budget.  This means that the county's financial commitment in 2018-2019 is $136,709.  This also means that in services provided by the cooperative that $136,709 will be provided by the cooperative for routine maintenance services.  All local agencies must provide a budget, but agencies contracted only for traffic control will only pay in what they choose to pay for that service.

COST SAVINGS OVER TIME

Joining road maintenance into a single statewide agency under a joint funding strategy will not be easy to enact at first.  Employees absolutely cannot be fired, have wages docked nor demoted when something like this is done.  This means that employee/administrative costs will remain constant for awhile.  The strategies that need to be done to make sure that a transition is smooth are as follows:

  1. Set Attrition
    • This means a hiring freeze is put into place immediately until employment levels fall to necessary levels
  2. Keep existing employees on local payroll, but new employees in fully contracted counties should be employees of the cooperative
    • Keeping titles, wages and positions will be better for morale and will help to combine talents and ideas
    • New employees will be hired as an employee of the cooperative in a fully contracted county and not the individual county and city since direct local responsibility for roads will be diminished or eliminated
  3. Co-Locate Facilities wherever practical in fully contracted counties and cities
    • This means that municipal and county departments should be combined into a single operation
    • Small population counties should be joined with neighboring counties where practical
PARTICIPATION REQUIRED

A statewide cooperative does not have an existing agency to shore it up in the way that a contract with GDOT has.  This means that a patchwork of counties and cities widely disbursed will make such a plan unsuccessful.  You cannot have one county in Northeast Georgia and 5 in Southwest Georgia and 2 in Central Georgia participating.  The administrative costs would be extreme, economies of scale not achieved and benefits in terms of better roads would not exist.  If only clusters of counties participated, then this would mean that the Regional Roads Plan was adopted, because a statewide operation would not be possible.  While the Georgia Local Roads Commission could exist to help broker and assist in such agreements, its functionality as an organization able to supervise and use its own forces would not exist. 

For this reason, a requirement must be in place that all counties under a certain population must contract their road maintenance to the cooperative and that overall 75%-80% participation is necessary.  While a few holes will not undo the entire operation, the network must be dense enough and patched together in such a way as to operate as intended: as a highway agency dedicated to maintaining local roads.  The plan has a clause, of course, that allows urbanized counties to opt out.  This does not mean that they are able to opt out completely, however, as this plan requires that traffic control is exclusively administered by the cooperative agency.  Traffic control means traffic signs, pavement markings, traffic signals, roadway safety features (rumble strips, crash barriers, guardrails) and the engineering staff required to plan and supervise it.  Thus, all counties and cities will be participating, but all maintenance services must be transferred to the cooperative in rural counties.

So why do you ask that rural counties completely throw their hat into the ring?  The reason is because the rural counties do not have the means to separate off that responsibility with the same results as an urban county.  An urban county may have $250,000 to spend on traffic control while the poorest county may offer only $5,000 (barely enough to install a couple stop signs and stripe one road).  A rural county may have next to nothing budgeted for traffic control, but if they consolidate their entire operation into a cooperative then the streamlining of resources either frees up greater funding for that purpose or stretches that $5,000 much further as it is consolidated with other purchases and can be done more cheaply.  Likewise, the urban counties should not have their funds redistributed to the poorest county at the expense of their own needs.  While state-aid can offset this expense and possibly lower the threshold of full-service counties, the general conclusion is that counties with under 60,000 residents should handle only construction leaving maintenance to the experts working in the Georgia Local Roads Commission.  That means at present 38 counties would be allowed to remain partially free, and that number will grow as the state's population continues to soar.

REVERSE CONTRACTING

A horizontal consolidation approach of puzzle piecing the road system into a single agency has its drawbacks in that interest has to be high and a willingness to abide by the basic rules required.  Furthermore, it is expected that other counties will not want to fully participate: including those that fall below threshold.  For that reason, it might be beneficial to have the cooperative pursue a vertical approach as well with them taking over state road maintenance on surface state routes, at least for the purpose of traffic control.  The addition of state payments per mile to the cooperative will save money while strengthening the purchasing power of the cooperative.  If the cooperative takes over full road maintenance on state roads in urbanized counties, then it will make it easier for them to provide traffic control-only services for the other county roads and municipal streets within that county.  It works on a similar principal as county/city maintenance contracts on state roads except that it applies statewide.

WHY DO THIS WHEN THE COUNTY/CITY DOES A GOOD ENOUGH JOB?

Road maintenance is a complex operation that takes a significant amount of taxpayer money.  A strategy that is local will keep the road usually in adequate repair, but the costs are higher and the standards are lower. It is impossible to coordinate plans, get the most bang for your buck or have frequent enough maintenance when you entrust that responsibility to so many local jurisdictions.  Traffic control especially suffers when handled on a local level, and at the very least that should be centralized.  The idea of combining all road maintenance into a statewide cooperative is designed to bring all road maintenance operations into balance so that everything is more consistent, more uniform and a backlog of needed work is reduced or eliminated.  Furthermore, it allows local agencies to have access to equipment and materials that they otherwise would not have without depending on the state, contractors or expensive consultants.

Since regional agreements of only 10-15 counties might be difficult for local governments to financially manage, a statewide cooperative might be the ideal solution.  With costs very minimal for participation due to the high rate of participation, local agencies could partner up with each other to provide the best roads at the least cost creating for themselves an agency that provides the same level of centralization that a state DOT can provide.  Compare the cost of one PTOE engineer (assuming $100,000/year) for Dawson County.  In a region with 13 counties (per the Regional Roads Plan), the cost to the county would be $3,613.  However, that same engineer, assuming universal participation of all cities and counties, would drop to $229.  Which plan is more likely to be feasible in a rural area?

While most likely to be used in rural areas, this plan may be the compromise needed so that rural areas can pool resources over a wider area while more concentrated areas like the Atlanta suburbs may operate separately.  Either way, this plan maintains a division of powers between GDOT and the local governments while lightening the burdens on local governments to maintain a huge responsibility: over 100,000 miles of roads or 86% of the road system.