Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Regional Roads: Examples of Potential Regional Roads Concepts (Part 3)

Four examples here can demonstrate how regionalization could help solve complex transportation issues that have not been easily resolved by other means.  Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Metro Atlanta all have been competing heavily for transportation funds with their surrounding states while the fragmentation of government in the region has made it very difficult to adequately raise revenues for region-specific projects as well as not providing an adequately maintained road system due to widely varying priorities and poor economies of scale.  A similar problem exists with township roads in New England, which is also discussed here.  While New England lacks as much in the way of regional competition, what they do have is the severe fragmentation that lowers the standards and raises costs for residents of those states.  These systems need to be unified, but in no case has the state been a good partner to these areas.  Here I will describe each possible regional scenario:


Northern Virginia is one of the fastest growing and most populous portions of Virginia.  With a collective population of around 2,000,000 it shares an equivalent population to the entire state of West Virginia.  The region has also suffered from working with a state who assumed control of county roads in all but one county over 80 years ago.  When the Byrd Road Act took responsibility for county roads in Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William Counties, all were very rural areas with few paved roads and little need for local control.  Since then the roads have not kept up with traffic demands with rough pavement, lack of intersection upgrades and substandard roadway designs choking traffic throughout the entire region.  Northern Virginia desperately needs to invest in a modernization of the road system, but local governments have a disincentive to invest heavily in the roads when the funding can be transferred elsewhere in the state and funding is held by the state capitol instead of within the region.  In addition, local option funding has been severely limited by the state government.  What works for rural Virginia is not working so well for this area.

However, legislation passed in 2012 already has developed a framework to give Northern Virginia more autonomy for road improvements through the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.  This agency has its own taxing powers and plans road and transit improvements specifically for the region.  In all, it appears to be a big step in the direction of regional control of roads, but at present the region has otherwise maintained their current structure of state control of roads in all but Arlington County and local control of municipal streets in all but Clifton.  Nonetheless, in the past 15 years the push for local control has popped up periodically: especially with Fairfax County.  Fairfax County carries the largest percentage of the population with over 1,000,000 residents.  Such a county is financially capable of maintaining their own road system, but the issues stretch beyond Fairfax County including several independent cities.  Arlington County also has more financial flexibility due to never giving their roads to VDOT.  While county-owned roads would probably work, it would be better if the entire region functioned as a single unit keeping the same road structure that VDOT has currently but operating it out of Northern Virginia exclusively instead of Richmond.  Because independent cities exist in this region, they would either have to be opted out or the "engineering district" model would have to be adapted basically centralizing engineering among the various road agencies along with shared traffic control.  It should also be noted that Northern Virginia's regional transportation authority matches the boundaries of the regional planning commission.

Northern Virginia, however, works largely as a unit on many things.  They also share in the cost of the transit systems and even park systems.  Northern Virginia is also in a unique position in that it does NOT have existing county road networks except in Arlington County.  This means that a transfer of state authority to a regional authority would be a far simpler process than in other states.  Instead of combining different employees and approaches, they would roll over the existing VDOT regional offices into a Northern Virginia DOT thus instantly gaining power as a state within a state.  Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington Counties could collectively control the regions roads instead of each county separately allowing them to pool resources and define projects independent of the state.  Instead of primary and secondary state roads all owned and maintained by VDOT, primary roads would be owned by the state and maintained by the region and secondary roads would become regional roads owned and maintained solely by the regional DOT.

It should be noted, however, that the Byrd Road Act has a flaw in that it did not include cities in the plan.  While some towns in the region already have their roads contracted to VDOT, cities in the region are in a reverse position.  The cities of Alexandria, Manassas, Manassas Park and Fairfax are all required to not only maintain their own roads but also the non-expressway state roads within their cities.  Manassas Park in particular has suffered from a lack of adequate funding and maintenance problems due to not being able to combine forces with anyone for roads as well as being required to maintain primary routes.  With a new regional DOT, the rules need to be changed allowing all cities and towns to give part or all road maintenance to the regional system regardless of population.  This rule change is also needed for the next area of interest.


Hampton Roads is probably one of the most unique transportation regions in the country.  This is because Virginia's requirement that cities are independent of counties has led to the disappearance of counties around Hampton Roads resulting in a solid cluster of independent cities instead of one larger city.  Because VDOT is not allowing non-expressway state roads in the region to be maintained by VDOT, this means that each city is responsible for most every road in the region including some expressways.  However, each city also works independently of each other with widely varying road standards that in most cases are all below VDOT specifications specifically in the area of safety improvements.  Four counties (Gloucester, York, James City and Isle of Wight) also exist in the region, and of those one of those was in talks to take over their county roads due to their proximity to the nine cities that make up Hampton Roads bringing the population total to 1.7 million.  James City County has also recently been in discussions with VDOT to take back their county road system.

Clearly the roadway situation in Hampton Roads is dysfunctional and it sets a bad precedent for the rest of the state.  The independent city structure should not prevent cities from seeking a means of providing a regional road delivery structure.  Like Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads also has a regional transportation planning organization.  The entire planning commission area also covers two more counties: Southampton and Surry.  Since each city and county is already consolidated, it once again makes sense to create a unified road structure that includes the entire region.  Because of the highly urbanized population and higher level of local control, however, it might also make sense to place a regional agency in charge of major roads in lieu of every cul-de-sac like VDOT does.  Essentially the existing regional transportation planning organization would create a DOT to take over all expressways, collector and arterial roadways in the cities from both VDOT and the cities respectively.  In the five counties in the region, the regional DOT would also assume control of all remaining secondary roads from VDOT in the six counties of the region similar to what is proposed for Northern Virginia.  However, all of these counties should also be given the option to stay with VDOT if they choose considering that the region will still have adequate population even without them.  In the independent cities, the roads would be divided into three tiers: primary (maintained by the region), regional (main roads owned and maintained by the region) and city (other streets).  Traffic control should be handled by the regional cooperative on all roads in the region even if certain streets are otherwise maintained by the cities.

If both Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia broke away from VDOT to form their own "state within a state" regional DOT's it would help correct the power struggle between these regions and Richmond.  With separate DOT's formed, the state's road budget could then be cleanly divided with a guaranteed ratio going to Northern Virginia, a guaranteed ratio going to Hampton Roads and the rest of the state no longer competing with these regions for funds.  With a regional structure, the two separate regions could also raise revenues on their own without involving VDOT.  It would also help VDOT to preserve the Byrd Road Act since the rest of the state is primarily rural and functions better with the current system.  However, that does not mean that a successful regionalization of Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia could not also be applied in the rest of the state based on the population thresholds described in this proposal.  In fact, all other secondary roads in Virginia could either be divided up into planning districts or divorced from VDOT into a Virginia Rural Roads Commission that maintains secondary roads jointly across all of rural Virginia.


The original 10-county Atlanta Metropolitan Area is highlighted in blue.  Today that covers 30+ counties.

The story with Metro Atlanta in some ways parallels Northern Virginia, but is actually quite different.  Georgia, unlike Virginia, has not embraced collective maintenance of roads either regionally or through the state.  Georgia also does not have independent cities, so every city is part of a county and has to share revenues with the county they are in.  The state actually relies strongly on local governments to plan, construct and maintain roads with limited state funding or involvement.  Metro Atlanta is also very fragmented with Fulton County in particular now largely completely divided into municipalities that resemble townships.  Dekalb and Gwinnett Counties seem to be following a similar course with new cities replacing large swaths of unincorporated suburban towns.  With relatively high populations, the seizure of local control from high population counties makes sense, but in terms of transportation policy is neither cost-efficient nor beneficial.  Road connectivity remains poor across Metro Atlanta and roadway standards vary widely from county to county and city to city.  The state road network is also simply too small with antiquated highway routings only causing confusion and thus worsening congestion in the region.  The state road network as it stands also does not provide any real benefit to the traveling public outside of the interstates since most surface state routes are not as well-maintained as in other parts of the state.  GDOT also remains firm in not taking over any new roads despite the explosion of roadway and lane miles throughout the region.  Cobb County in particular has the lowest ratio of state control of any county in the state with only 4% under state control when the state average is 15%.  However, the City of Atlanta has an unusually high ratio of state controlled roads likely due to the inability to fund these roads adequately on their own.  Nonetheless, this high level of state responsibility in city of Atlanta offers no benefit since the state does not do a good job maintaining these minor surface state roads while the city is adequately equipped to handle that responsibility.

Once again, a regional plan should be considered here.  The state of Georgia just recently surpassed the 10,000,000 mark on population.  Of that population, 40% or 4,000,000 reside within just the 10 county territory represented by the Atlanta Regional Commission forming the original boundaries of Metro Atlanta.  In the wider metro area, the population climbs to 5.7 million or 57% of the state's population!  The region alone has a population slightly larger than Maryland.  This means that the Atlanta Regional Commission could successfully operate their own regional DOT completely separate from GDOT with more than adequate funding to do so.  Adding Polk County, which itself is a micropolitan statistical area, brings the population to 5.8 million.  For sure it is an excellent place to start in the development of a regional highway system.  Of the larger metro area, 12 counties have populations under 50,000 residents meaning that they would greatly benefit from the centralization of the region's road system to a Greater Atlanta system.  These 12 counties would ultimately turn all routine maintenance over to the region saving those taxpayers money and improving the standards in those rural counties.  The larger counties, by comparison, would be able to do more with less by transferring the major highways in the region to the region itself.  If nothing else, developing a regional road system in all of Metro Atlanta could help spearhead these outlying counties to break away and form regional partnerships with other rural counties in their respective planning regions.  In fact, four separate planning regions make up 20 of the 30 counties in Greater Metro Atlanta, and if those broke away into their proper planning regions they would instantly have populations sufficient to begin recruiting other counties in their regions to join them.  As a result, one regional DOT would ultimately evolve into five regions and would hopefully spearhead further development of the other seven south of Atlanta.

By creating a regional DOT for Metro Atlanta, the region could right-size the road system in relation to the rest of the state.  While the four core metro counties are theoretically more than capable of taking care of their own roads, the reality of the incorporation of those counties coupled with the higher costs to maintain these road networks separately is not really working as well as it would appear.  The regional system would help create greater efficiency through direct responsibility of at least 25%-30% of the road system and an additional limited responsibility for the 12 smaller counties.  This would also help Cobb, Fulton, Gwinnett and DeKalb, all counties with very large road systems, to focus more on the construction and maintenance of truly local roads while some of the municipalities in the region that are too small to adequately manage road networks on their own such as Chattahoochee Hills, Hapeville and Mountain Park would have the option to use regional forces entirely when state forces never previously were available to them.


New England is a complicated situation.  Taxes are high and roads are rough in a region of the country familiar with harsh winters and a form of government not embraced by much of the country: townships.  Nowhere in the country do townships have more power than New England where counties have essentially been deactivated.  In fact, no piece of property is not part of a small municipality in New England.  While the town form of government, a relic of Colonial times, has been helpful at keeping government close to the people it has resulted in ridiculously low road standards and higher costs throughout New England due to the very highly fragmented nature of townships.

Regionalization in New England is something that does not have to be as complicated as in parts of the South and Midwest.  In many cases just placing main roads under the authority of the county would greatly improve the quality of roads in the region while allowing New England states to downsize their typically larger state route systems.  While Maine is not a really good case for this plan due to its low population and high ratio of state control, states like New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island should truly pursue the creation of either county road systems simply for the purpose of bringing more roadways up to proper specifications or create road districts based on regional planning districts or county lines.

However, the specific example being used here is Connecticut.  With only 8 counties the state could run a very efficient road operation if municipalities were laid out like most states and counties were fully functional.  Regardless, Connecticut splits the pie very thin among 164 different townships.  In no way is it cost efficient or financially viable for 164 different townships to have their very own street department doing exactly the same job on just a few roads that the next township over also does.  This makes costs very high for local government as a whole and not just for roads, and very few of these municipalities could afford to have anything remotely like a traffic operations unit to manage traffic control.  The lack of any state involvement in the maintenance of township roads also does not help.  Since these are municipalities, it is also typically more difficult for a state to have any authority compared to a county.  Compare this to Maryland where most counties have similar populations to Connecticut.  Maryland's county roads are typically far better maintained simply due to maintaining a county structure for road maintenance despite a very high population.  A typical Maryland county has a population of over 100,000 residents with few municipalities.  Thus, counties in Maryland operate at a far higher level due to the lack of incorporated municipalities carving up the funding pie.

This map of Connecticut shows how using counties instead of townships as a form of "regionalization" for road maintenance could be far more efficient and produce a far better road system.  Nearly every county in Connecticut has at least 150,000 residents meaning eight very well-maintained county road systems instead of 164 poorly maintained township road systems.  (Sourced from

In terms of creating an MSA-based district, the township system may actually be advantageous since it is far easier to carve up districts accurately.  In addition, if every regional road district in Connecticut, for instance, was divided based on 400,000 residents, 9 regional districts could be formed very close to the current number of counties.  Since every county in Connecticut is well over 100,000 residents per county, this means that the regional organizations would simply relieve both the state and the towns of the main roadways.  This would mean that Connecticut could cut their current state-owned ratio in half to about 9% and transfer the remaining connecting roads for a combined total of about 30-40% of the road system.  Low population towns could also simply pay the regional agency to maintain their remaining roads for them meaning huge costs savings for the residents of those towns and a lower tax burden across the state.  This would also free up far more funding for better roadway safety standards and smoother roads.


NOTE: The map/information below will soon be updated to reflect boundaries based on regional planning commissions (2/17/17)

With the Metro Atlanta map, it is important to also show the whole state including the proposed 28 county region.  Georgia proves that the county model is an unreliable means of giving the best results especially when the population is spread too thin.  With 159 counties, only Texas has more counties but even Texas's counties are much larger than Georgia's micro-counties.  While Georgia avoided the township system, Georgia has not only too many counties but also far too many municipalities carving up the pie.  While the idea for regional roads was born out of a solution for Northern Virginia, it appears it could very well solve the county problem without eliminating a single county in Georgia.

This crudely color-coded map is of the existing planning regions, but is designed to also eventually define the regions of regional road cooperative districts.  Note the total of 12 regions.  Also note Region 9.  Region 9 is barely above the 300,000 threshold and may have to be combined with Region 8 if population of the region drops below that threshold.  All of the other regions have a population of 350,000 or more.  

The average population of all of the regions shown here is 800,000.  This means that there are approximately 12 "states within a state" to work with here in terms of ability to provide state-level transportation standards and maintenance.  However, unless a dedicated statewide funding source is able to supply the lower population regions, it may be necessary to combine Regions 8 and 9 if population of either drops below the 300,000 threshold.  Nonetheless, this is a vast improvement over the current structure.  Region 9 in particular has a population in many counties of only 3,000 in population yet they currently provide all of their own road maintenance.  Note as well how this plan ties the rural counties to population centers in the region allowing improved economies of scale and higher standards in the more populous counties while giving the low population areas access to professional standards and higher purchasing power enjoyed by the more populous counties.


Regional road concepts are a means of completely rethinking the role of both states and local governments in terms of road planning, construction and maintenance.  With so many types of regional organizations in place, it is a wonder why the actual process of building and maintaining roads continues to fall largely on very small local jurisdictions across much of the country.  With higher overhead costs and lower overall consistency still an issue today, most counties and municipalities need a better alternative now as much as they did 80 years ago.  However, states are proving to no longer be the best option to address this issue.  Various financial crises are wrecking both centralized road programs in the Mid-Atlantic states and other less centralized road programs across much of the country.  Even the less centralized systems are struggling to finance larger road systems spread across numerous jurisdictions that have all grown larger and more expensive than available funding.  Clearly both structures have outlived their usefulness.

States have also proved that they want to reduce responsibility while counties and cities have shown that it costs more than taxpayers are willing or able to pay to provide a high quality road network.  Since counties and cities have shown an unwillingness to consolidate, and secession of portions of states from larger states for that purpose is unrealistic, the only other solution is to create a means of providing road construction and maintenance on a regional level without actually creating any new jurisdictions.  This is why the regional roads plan has been proposed here as a means of right-sizing road systems keeping maintenance semi-local while improving resources, planning and staff.  It is a win-win for every party.  The state is relieved of significant responsibility, counties and cities are not dumped on them what they cannot afford and tremendous cost savings are realized by all parties involved. With the regional roads plan, no state is too big to provide high standard roads to every county and city.



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