The road networks prior to 1920 were entirely private or local responsibility. As a mixture of private toll roads and bridges and primitive roads barely maintained by their respective counties, the roads overall were in terrible shape. Compulsory road crews instead of paid county employees took turns with road duty similar to military service. Travel was difficult, and roads were difficult to follow. In fact, the first real highways came along as national trails that were established by motorist clubs dedicated to creating marked routes to cross the country. These were designed for the then-new automobiles to enjoy and as a means to give a clear route connecting major cities. In those days mapping was primitive and GPS did not exist, so long-distance travel was difficult. Soon after, states began to create highway agencies with the intent on centralizing responsibility for roads deemed of greatest importance. Led by the Good Roads Movement, these states generally started with a small network of numbered roads, which were little more than dirt trails designated by the state, with the intent of raising money to pave and improve those roads. Throughout the 1920's and 1930's a tremendous amount of roadways, now under state control, were paved and reconstructed allowing travel between cities to be far faster and safer than the previous wagon trails that connected from town to town.
It was during this time that states began to recognize that counties were not keeping up with the state's efforts to create safe and modern roadways for the public. With the Depression raging on, counties were going broke and could no longer continue maintaining or improving roads to any adequate level. Leading those efforts was North Carolina. This began after the efforts of a local woman who traveled across the state to convince all 100 counties statewide to combine their road departments under the state highway department. At the time, it was recognized that counties were doing such a poor job with engineering, maintenance and construction of their individual roads that the state needed to play a larger roll: a much larger roll. In 1931, North Carolina assumed control of every single county road network effectively putting counties out of the road business. This was also extended to cities and towns where the state permitted them to put a portion of their own roads other than major highways onto the state's roadway network. These local streets along with the county road systems became known as "secondary state roads".
The radical plan by North Carolina did not go unnoticed. State houses across the country began to debate whether this was a good idea. In fact, North Carolina was followed by Virginia in 1932 and West Virginia in 1933 in adopting this plan. However, Virginia took a more pragmatic approach allowing counties to voluntarily give their roads to the state. Only four counties opted out with one later joining and another becoming part of a city. The last two holdouts have become large urban counties for Richmond and Washington DC (Henrico and Arlington) that have sufficient means to maintain county roads. Other states to adopt the North Carolina plan included Maryland and Delaware although Maryland pursued the Virginia approach allowing counties to opt out. Pennsylvania took a similar approach, but due to the presence of townships the state ratio was placed more arbitrarily and was considerably lower than in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland. This plan was also likely adapted at least temporarily in other states during the depression, but was later abandoned as the economic picture improved during the 1950's.
The 1930's demonstrated that for a time in the history of this country that state officials felt that local governments could not be trusted to do a good job vs. what a centralized state agency could handle. This sentiment appeared to mirror many aspects of the New Deal, and it persisted up until the late 1960's. While no state again assumed complete responsibility for local roads, the 1950's saw another surge in state takeovers of roads from counties. In the early 1950's, Texas and Missouri both created "farm to market" road networks owned by the state to provide state highway access closer to homes, communities and farming areas. In 1954, Colorado also began a short-lived plan to assume a large number of roads as state highways: many unimproved roads with no actual funding to upgrade them. In 1955, Florida took a more serious approach and assumed maintenance responsibility for 11,000 miles of secondary roads doubling the size of their prior state road network (counties remained in charge of construction on Florida's secondary roads). State systems also grew to very large ratios in Maine, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Alaska (all more than 1/3 under state control). Maryland and Alabama also both introduced "captive county" networks where certain counties deeded their entire county road network to the state DOT either by mandate or choice. Georgia also briefly introduced secondary state roads via a "Rural Roads Authority" as well over a five year span during the 1950's. Most dramatic of all, South Carolina began to assume responsibility for thousands of miles of newly paved and reconstructed county roads into a statewide secondary system that ultimately grew to a peak mileage of 65% of their entire road network. South Carolina's approach was similar to Georgia's Rural Roads Authority except that the roadways remained under state control after they were built while Georgia's were transferred back to the counties after a heated battle dismantled the network in the late 50's.
On the flip side, Wisconsin and Michigan decided that counties needed greater responsibility to function effectively requiring the consolidation of all state road responsibility to the respective counties in Wisconsin and pushing it in Michigan. Today, 63 of 83 counties in Michigan and all counties in Wisconsin are responsible for maintaining not only their own county roads but also those roads owned by the state. While a local approach was employed, the consolidation of services still was on a similar vein as the North Carolina plan in that it eliminated duplication of services resulting in greater state oversight and better maintained roads than if the counties functioned separately.
Unfortunately, in all of these movements the focus on state takeover involved primarily roads owned by counties. There was little or no interest in including cities, towns, townships or other municipalities in these centralization plans as this was done primarily to garner support from rural interests. In fact, Virginia actually forbade cities from turning roads to the state even requiring them to maintain roads the state owned. However, lower population towns to this day are allowed to include their roads in the state's secondary road network. New England aside from Maine also saw no effort to turn township roads over to states, and township roads in the Midwest were neither consolidated into state nor county responsibility. While a few states did allow cities and towns to contract with the state via "gentleman's agreements", this was usually done at municipal expense and became almost non-existent outside of the Mid-Atlantic and a couple Rocky Mountain states. Agreements with counties became complicated enough, so states largely avoided dealing with the patchwork of municipalities: especially considering that city ordinances and politics often conflict with state policies and practices.
By the mid-1970's, these movements came to an abrupt and dramatic halt. The combination of a changing political landscape to one that heavily promoted local home rule combined with stagflation and oil shocks that caused a sudden and rapid decline in state revenues was the perfect storm. Instead of looking for new revenue sources to make the greater state responsibility work more effectively, devolution became a popular idea throughout the various states. Increasing taxes on a state level for any reason became very unpopular, so it was far easier to pass the cost to local governments than to raise revenues to the levels necessary to continue to build and maintain the expansive road networks that had been built over the 40 years prior. By then, the roadways built during the Depression and WWII were beginning to age, major post-war dirt road paving projects were winding down and states were feeling pressure to focus funding primarily on building interstates and other expensive roads to accommodate the tremendous population growth across much of the country. What started as a program that was primarily designed to help rural counties in mostly rural states suddenly seemed archaic with the fast growth that was taken place. Relieving local governments of costly and technical road maintenance suddenly became a lower priority with the farm to market road networks still relatively new and the remaining dirt roads lightly traveled. With that, states made a 180 and instead championed the view that counties and cities were more than ready and eager to take on greater road responsibility and that it would ultimately be far more efficient than bigger state government. This view persists to this day, but that view continues to be challenged by both local governments and many state level politicians who see it as a largely unfunded mandate that passes a large cost to local governments without any real benefit to them.
As a result of these movements, the landscape changed drastically. Florida led the charge by killing off their secondary highway system in 1977 cutting the state-owned system in half thus leaving rural counties with a responsibility they were ill-prepared for. Local governments protested heavily, but the legislature simply claimed that the state no longer had funds for the program. Alabama followed in 1979 forcing the happily "captive" counties to be "freed" to maintain their own roads again leaving the mostly rural county roads to substantially decline. New York and Iowa also both dumped a large number of highways back on counties in 1980. 1982 saw Georgia trim back 1,000 miles of state roads largely located in poor rural counties. Pennsylvania joined the party in 1984 dumping a substantial number of secondary roads back to the townships (although the state continues to maintain over 1/3 of the roadways in the state). Colorado also shed a large number of state-owned roads throughout the 80's and 90's to the local governments. Lastly, Maryland began to terminate "captive county" agreements with the last dissolved in 1984 and the law repealed in 1989. Other similar state maintenance agreements with counties and cities were terminated across the country throughout the 1980's and early 1990's. In fact, only two states added any significant number of roads previously under local control during the 80's and 90's: Tennessee and Montana. In both states, the state highway systems became much larger, but the ratio was still far below similar takeover programs from the 1930's to 1950's. Both states still have a significant number of federal-aid eligible roads maintained by the local governments.
The view in the 70's is that counties and cities who had just gotten the bulk of federal-aid roadways rebuilt into highways for them could afford to maintain those roads as well as the state by shifting funding to the counties. At the time of the division in Florida, the gas tax was shifted to 50% local and 50% state. Far from being adequate, the majority of counties and municipalities were not prepared for this responsibility even with a shift in funding. Road quality declined sharply as county funding was still inadequate, purchasing power diminished and priorities were lower on a local level. At the time, most of Florida's counties were still very rural. Many improved through massive suburban growth, but at least 1/3 of the counties in Florida remain very rural. Throughout the 80's and 90's these formerly state roads in Florida as well as other states began to look semi-abandoned as poor, rural counties were stuck with inadequate revenues and equipment to maintain crumbling pavement, a large number of expensive sign fixtures and aging bridges left behind by the states. While the states were still helping financially, funding was by no means adequate for state-level service. Counties were prioritizing expensive, showy road projects such as building bridges, paving dirt roads and building new roads over less politically-important safety improvements and routine maintenance. Most counties lacked the ability to privately or independently finance many duties that the state was able to provide far more cheaply to much higher standards when done in-house by the state. With nothing more than vague state standards, the direction of county commissioners and an often nepotism-riddled local workforce, road maintenance became far too politicized so that the minimum was being done where previously the state was doing a far better job.
It should also be noted that devolution also continues in many states without the presence of any sweeping reform. While the last major devolution sweep occurred in 2003 with Iowa, many states these days are practicing the more subtle and patently unfair "devolution by evolution" which means not only placing mileage caps on state road miles but also forcing local agencies to swap mileage based on "lane miles" instead of actual miles.
The mileage cap can be described as the most insidious of plans. With a mileage cap, the state legislature or highway department sets an arbitrary maximum number that the state highway system may not exceed. In Indiana, this is 12,000 miles and in Georgia it's 18,000 miles. Each year, the local road systems in every state grow to accommodate thousands of miles of new local streets and new major roadway connections that previously did not exist. However, the state in turn does not proportionally increase their own mileage to reflect this new roadway mileage that the local agencies have taken over. Instead, local agencies are pretty much required to take on the new roads or in the case of a roadway relocation assume responsibility for the old alignment. If the local agency fights to keep the old alignment as a state road, then they will usually have to give up another state maintained road within the same county meaning that they become both physically and financially responsible for a roadway that they likely didn't even build in the first place. In essence, this is another form of an unfunded mandate where the local burden increases without any long-term additional funding from the state. In the case of Georgia, it was found that the overall growth of the highway system should have seen a 4% increase or approximately 5,000 miles of new state maintained road miles since 1980 if the ratio had stayed the same. This means in states with mileage caps that the ratio of state maintained roads continues to drop without the state turning back a single mile on paper. This unfair system should be replaced with a far more reasonable "ratio cap" where a set ratio based on available funding is set allowing the system to slowly grow in proportion with the overall road system based on the needs of state and local governments. This means that if a state has 10,000 miles of state roads out of a system of 100,000 miles (a ratio of 10%) and the local governments add 2,000 miles to the road system that the state should add 200 miles of existing local roads to the state highway system to maintain the ratio cap of 10%.
The lane mile mileage swap is another unfair plan. The latter means that if a four lane road that the county wants the state to take over is five miles long, they must take on a 10 mile two lane equivalent meaning that the county has a net loss of ten miles of state roads just to gain five miles of another road. While the cost equivalent is certainly a valid argument since the addition of lane miles mean vastly more pavement to maintain, the fact is that the same two lane road may also ultimately be four-laned as well thus once again passing on the cost via an unfunded mandate to the local government. If costs are going to go up with the transfer of mileage, it should be an equivalent mileage transfer not "lane miles" with the state simply absorbing the higher cost.
The pitfalls of devolution have hopefully been described well enough above. What was true in 1931 is still true today: local agencies are generally not properly equipped to handle all aspects of road construction and maintenance on their own. What's worse is that our population is much larger than it was in 1931 meaning demands on roads are much greater than in the early days of driving. While this means that the local tax base is broader than it was in 1931, it does not mean that the financial and political landscape in local governments is sound enough to treat the ideas of the past as tired relics in need of forgetting. In fact, it is actually becoming much worse as the US tax base is weakening, rural areas are losing population, states are pulling back funding from local governments and revenues from previously reliable funding sources have continued to decline. Add to this that much of the road system is overbuilt meaning the costs to maintain these roads is overwhelming local authorities. In 1931, the average local road was a gravel or unimproved dirt trail.
Because of this, the trend of devolution must be reversed or at least tweaked to fit in with modern realities. States and local governments should still be pulling together like they did in the 1920's, 1930's and 1950's instead of operating as separate hemispheres. Even if the states are not willing to take over local maintenance, various functional consolidation measures should be considered with funding dedicated within every state's budget to partially maintain roads they don't own. This means that either the states should again assist local governments with routine maintenance or a collective of counties and cities need to take charge to fill in the gaps where local governments alone are not doing the job well enough. These same collectives should also relieve the burdens of the state by offering to maintain state-owned roads on their behalf. Likewise, the federal government should start considering state-owned secondary networks to be "local roads" to allow states who relieved counties of road ownership to still share in additional funding available to raise safety standards beyond what they are today. Since roadways deemed local are typically underfunded whether under state control (secondary) or local control (county, municipal), it is important that the federal government also steps in to improve safety issues on any road that is below the level of a primary state highway. By making this change, it will make the creation of partially or completely state-maintained or state-owned local road networks more politically viable in the future. If nothing else, states should start taking responsibility for making sure that roads eligible for federal aid are maintained at the same level as their own state highways.
It is true that far more focus is being made on local road standards than in the past. With the population increase, many local agencies are becoming more professional and states are beginning to recognize that what they left the counties to do on their own they are not really able to do very well without more direct assistance. The introduction of the High Risk Rural Program was to create a dedicated funding source to make improvements on local roads with high accident rates. The findings of the High Risk Rural Roads Program were that roads in rural areas maintained by local governments were death traps with far higher accident rates than comparable roads in urbanized areas. It was becoming obvious that little to no investment was being made on the safety of these roads for the citizens since local roads nationwide began to be paved for the first time. In fact, local roads in many states - especially in the South and New England - sometimes have an almost antique appearance to them with roadway features left modified little from when the roads were first paved in the wave of farm to market programs during the 50's and 60's. The High Risk Rural Roads Program has helped, but most states are not willing to interfere with the local control of these roads. Instead of a top down approach where the states are combining adequate amounts of state funding with the federal government to systematically correct every deficiency, they are largely allowing these local agencies to come forward with a wish list of improvements to be funded by the federal government. Nevertheless, local agencies are reluctant to do expensive upgrades knowing that are likely to be ultimately be left with a responsibility that they will lack the equipment or funding to maintain when the federal funding is stripped away. The current political climate strongly suggests that federal-aid safety programs for local governments have a cloudy future.
The truth is that local road systems in their current form are an early 20th century method of service delivery that is failing to meet 21st century roadway standards. It is evidenced by the ability of states like North Carolina, Virginia and Delaware to do a much better job with routine maintenance than most counties that states very well can afford to do far more for local governments than they are doing. In fact, the higher overhead costs and inability to create economies of scale associated with the smaller tax base and duplication of services make it far more difficult for local governments to successfully accomplish what a larger state agency can even with the best of intentions. What this history lesson also demonstrated is that state responsibility for roads was never a default with responsibility for lesser roads relegated TO local governments. In fact, it was the other way around with states taking responsibility FROM local governments, primarily counties, to create better construction and maintenance standards than the local governments were providing on their own. While it is understood that states are struggling to finance roads, it does not have to be this way. It can be fixed, but it will take an understanding of how roads are funded and a willingness of states to take responsibility instead of covering their tracks by dumping the majority of the load on local governments. While larger financial and political issues in DC are still also a factor, this does not prevent the states from taking their own steps to fix the problem. This also is a cue for local agencies to become less reliant on the states by taking real steps to cooperate with one another by joining certain road responsibilities instead of operating independently.
Despite local funding initiatives, counties and cities are largely granted funding powers from the states. In fact, the only single source that local agencies have access to that the state typically does not are local property taxes. Even then, many states cap property tax rates making it a very limited source with high property taxes a very unpopular way to fund government. In states that do rely heavily on local governments, quite a few have many layers of local government such as small counties, cities, towns and townships. In states where local government is very fragmented, local property taxes tend to be very high in relation to states with far fewer local governments. Accountability is also very low in states with high levels of small local governments in regards to road standards. This means that the costs to run the local agencies tend to be far higher than the amount of actual funding available for the services provided. This also means that the state lacks physical or financial resources to oversee the construction and maintenance activities when a high number of jurisdictions is involved.
When property taxes are removed from the picture the primarily financial responsibility for roads comes from the states. Along with this, much of the property tax revenues used toward roads in rural counties are absorbed into the costs of running a local highway agency. Without property taxes, the actual gas tax revenues given to local governments are very low especially when factoring in the number of local jurisdictions in a state. In Georgia, it was found in 2012 that the actual amount spent to assist local governments ran around 11% spread across 159 counties. The average funding split in much of the country is around 20-25%, but it should be noted in most of those states that the state responsibility is lower than in Georgia. In other words, many states are chronically under-funding local roads, which make up the majority of roads (80%) in the US. In Georgia, local governments are responsible for 85% of the road network. Georgia also had (until this past year) the second lowest gas tax rate in the nation.
While it might reduce costs on the state, fragmenting road responsibility most definitely increases costs overall. In other words, the price is actually higher when using devolution as a means of achieving lower statewide gas taxes. With counties expected to use primarily property taxes with a smaller percentage of gas taxes, it often means that either local roads are in very bad shape or that taxes go up to improve existing roads. Otherwise, local roads are barely adequate via the transfer of a funding source that the states could use themselves for local level roads such as sales taxes, local option gas taxes, ad valorem taxes or other fees. In fact, most counties and cities are increasingly relying on sales tax initiatives as their primary source of revenue to fund road construction and maintenance, and sales taxes in many states are very much on the whim of voters. Most local road funding in Georgia, for instance, comes from local option 1% sales taxes.
When looking at these facts, is devolution really a solution? What you get with devolution is a state mandate for a local agency to duplicate or expand services, which costs millions more to operate. If the state is handling the local burden completely and transfers it to the counties or municipalities, a whole new work force is created where one previously did not exist or was needed. In the other case that a state has a larger ratio of a local jurisdiction's roadways, devolution means that a county or municipality must spread their already sparse resources even more thin having to take on more costly to maintain major roads instead of focusing on the truly local roads. Without providing tremendous state funding either the costs will go way up meaning higher gas, sales or property taxes or the quality of services will decline unless that local jurisdiction already has a very large tax base with high revenues. Unfortunately, the latter option has tended to be the case in both rural counties and urbanized counties who champion lower taxes. Costs could be kept down far more easily by consolidating the responsibility into fewer hands allowing existing resources to be invested more in actual roads. The question is whether states will retain that through direct supervision of the state DOT, split that responsibility into state-funded regional highway agencies or foster local cooperate regions for the same purpose.
Devolution in any form is only a solution when a local agency can absolutely demonstrate that they have not only the financial means but also the professional standards and human resources available to do an equivalent or better job than the state can. Any other devolution strategy is simply an unwillingness of the state to raise adequate funding to manage what they can easily do with adequate funding. Even in those rare cases that devolution makes sense, this is still a situation where consolidation of services remains the ideal way to handle it. This blog discusses these unusual models that include the combining of services in a manner that does not require any expansion of state government. These include:
- State agencies providing maintenance services to local governments at their own expense (primarily a rural option)
- The local jurisdiction (preferably counties) maintaining the state-owned roads (the Wisconsin approach)
- Regional or statewide cooperative highway systems. This includes:
- Regional road districts of multiple counties and cities with at least 300,000 residents per unit generally based on metropolitan statistical areas (may be limited to larger urban areas)
- Statewide interlocal cooperative highway systems consisting of both county roads and city streets (may be limited to rural areas)
- Statewide farm-to-market highway system cooperatives limiting joint road maintenance responsibility to a set overall road system ratio
- Statewide shared traffic control/traffic engineering cooperatives
- Service swapping agreements between the state and local agency (the Pennsylvania approach)
Without the above approaches, full local control is not ideal and should be highly discouraged on as many roads as possible. If the above options are not part of a devolution effort, they should be quickly reconsidered as a logical transition from a more centralized system. In fact, states who have relegated to counties and cities tremendous responsibility need to reverse course and offer more assistance to local agencies either through taking on more roads or offering more services to counties, cities and towns if the cooperative option cannot be successfully formed.
While obviously what is being advocated here is a reconsideration of the North Carolina plan, 21st century pragmatism dictates that not only does one size not fit all, but also that an all or nothing approach is not the best way to address inefficiencies and deficiencies in a local road agency. Currently there is no middle ground: it's either all state controlled or all maintained by every local agency independent of one another. Nonetheless, a state's political culture and the current political climate both dictate that a huge sweep of roads under the state umbrella is probably not going to happen. This means that a multifaceted approach could be considered that works for every state. For one, the issues that are typical in Eastern states are less of a problem in the Western states where counties are very large and local governments are few in number thus far more powerful/capable. Even without any specific state funding or mandate present, very large counties that are fewer in number have the capacity to function as a state within a state essentially forming a more regional instead of local government. This means that counties in states such as Washington State, California, Utah, Idaho, Arizona and Oregon have neither the frequency or severity of issues with deficient roadway standards that are more common in states from the Midwest to the Atlantic. However, even in states who do not often have these issues on a county level, they may still be present on a smaller municipal level and within some counties. This also means that cooperative agreements are still good ideas in the rural counties in these states. Nevertheless, with far fewer local agencies to deal with the state is able to not only reduce their own load but also provide far more services and revenues to counties and cities thus enabling counties to provide a level of service that is not typical in other states. Overall, engineering standards tend to be noticeably higher despite a very low population density and visible tax base. In other words, it presents the basis of another idea that has not been tested: creating a regional multi-jurisdictional system of service delivery in lieu of state or local as was presented in the list above.
The gist of what is being said here is that in terms of the ability of a highway system to meet better roadway standards means that the state government should pursue functional consolidation on a local level under the following means:
- The state as a partner to local agencies for routine maintenance (state routine maintenance contracts on local agency road systems)
- The state and/or the individual counties and cities brokering a local cooperative arrangement that involves high population regional systems consisting of either statewide farm-to-market or statewide consolidated road systems to administer routine maintenance on local roads while allowing local agencies to retain primary funding and responsibility for capital projects, or
- Urbanized counties and/or local cooperatives beginning to provide routine maintenance (including traffic control) on state-owned roads on behalf of the state
What is also being said here is that counties and cities can only be made more responsible stewards of roadways when they can share responsibility in a way that proves that they are capable of providing more than the minimal level of road maintenance, capable of following all applicable standards with ease, and having adequate resources to provide service levels comparable to the state government. While future posts will describe each plan and its benefits and disadvantages, the point here is that simple devolution from a state to a local level with a complete transfer of responsibility from the state to a local level is a weak and failed solution to correct roadway deficiencies and funding shortages. It is time that states reverse course and begin to take responsible for innovating how local agencies handle roads, improve efficiency and subsequently improve their own standards and practices to strengthen their position in conjunction with local governments.
For the most part, a greater direct role by the state is the ideal approach through taking over maintenance of rural county and municipal roadways through jurisdictional agreement or through a wider scale secondary system that retains some local responsibility, but no such system has been created in this country in decades. Even if a state is unwilling to assume the responsibility for roads they don't own, the main issue is the lack of consistency and oversight, which cannot come solely from a local level. A larger statewide or regional agency is better suited to provide engineering services and streamline maintenance services than the counties and cities themselves. Considering the creative and financially feasible options out there, why is devolution still being pursued? It was a bad idea in the 1970's and it's a bad idea today.