The goal of any regional road agency would be to have each region serve at least 300,000 residents allowing road responsibility to be handled with adequate and equivalent funding and population so that a professional staff with the knowledge and experience is available to handle all areas of road maintenance irrespective of the size or population of the jurisdictions within that zone. Note that this total includes the population of every agency involved not just land area. This means if counting a county, only unincorporated population can be calculated unless the cities or towns within that county are also members. Thus, if a county has 200,000 residents, but three cities in the county totaling 50,000 opted out, the population is counted as 150,000.
The best and most effective way of designating these areas is to follow the boundaries of the federal planning regions. The only time that these planning regions would expand to other regions is if the population within the region is below 300,000 residents in which the regional cooperative would merge with an adjacent region that contains the second lowest population. For example, let's say the Blue Valley Region has 275,000 residents (and is not gaining population) and the adjacent Green Hills Region has 310,000 (the lowest of all bordering regions). In that case, the Blue Valley and Green Hills regions would combine to form one agency with 585,000 residents. Similarly, let's say that member counties and municipalities in both the Blue Valley and Green Hills Regions come out to a total population of 175,000 in one 125,000 in the other. In this case, a merger would be needed to bring the populations to threshold even if both regions otherwise exceeded threshold. The likelihood that these agreements would operate in a swiss cheese like pattern is fairly high meaning that clusters may not be able to follow the boundaries of the planning regions if this is the case. In a state like Wyoming, this very well means that one region may cover the entire state.
In some cases, a single county would form an initial region by merging the cities together with other cities and/or the county. Single county regions would operate very similar to the Lakewood Plan adopted by the City of Lakewood and Los Angeles County in the 1950's. This would be like, for instance, if all townships in a county in Connecticut decided to combine to form a county road department. That same region could also include townships from neighboring counties as well and not be constricted by county boundaries.
Either way, the goal is to bring roads closer to the people than a state level but far enough away that resources are pooled to assure that proper standards are met, agencies are fully equipped and economies of scale can be fully achieved. Instead of "sending money to the state capitol" they will be technically "sending money" to the largest city in the region, which in most cases will be no more than 50-100 miles from the center of the region. Instead of decisions made by a state capitol often more than a day's drive away, they will be made from a population center that they typically visit, conduct business in and have a vested interest in for their own personal benefit.
Horizontal consolidation through regional cooperatives allows better access to state government. The use of this method means the likelihood of a dedicated state funding source is more likely, better regional clout and most of all the opportunity to obtain valuable contracts with the state DOT to begin to provide state highway maintenance using forces from the region. For example, a specific planning region has the following:
- The initial division was 1 state DOT, 12 counties and 45 cities/towns all operating separately
- 11 counties and 20 cities/towns join the cooperative with one county and 25 cities holding out initially
- The cooperative requests per-mile state-aid payments so that they can provide state road maintenance on behalf of the DOT meaning millions of dollars of state-aid steered to the local level thus what started out as 58 agencies is now down to 27
- Seeing the improvements in road quality and financial benefits of joining the cooperative, the remaining county joins the cooperative along with the other 25 cities and towns meaning 58 separate agencies doing the same thing have been reduced to one operating just in that region.
- The region then petitions to divert state-aid into a dedicated fund for the region freeing the 57 partner local agencies from jointly financing operations of the agency allowing the region to return 100% of funding paid in from each local agency in roadway improvements to the partner local agencies
- The regional also already benefits from state-aid payments reducing operational costs and helping the state to provide more frequent maintenance with less cost
- The result is that both the state and all 57 local agencies are able to provide much better road maintenance than they were operating separately due to streamlined costs, more specialization, more professionalism and ultimately fewer employees needed to do the same job
The best part of regional road agencies are that state DOT's can more reasonably downsize their operations by transferring both responsibility and ownership to regional agencies, and oversight of regional agencies from a state level would be far easier than it currently is for individual counties and cities. States with lopsided highway systems full of unnecessary state-owned roads based on mid-century political favors could be divested to regions without any change in road quality. This means that states could far more easily justify downsizing their highway systems to the point that they only are responsible for arterial roads of true statewide significance. Since most state DOT's are eager to remove as many lower importance state routes as possible, this is a way to do so that actually works better for both parties. Likewise, the states can also cut costs by combining maintenance responsibility for state roads with the regional agencies: a form of reverse contracting where the smaller agency handles duties for the larger state agency. Regional boards could also be made up of a local elected official from each jurisdiction to assure that funding and goals are met on both a regional and local level. At present, states have been holding on to these larger state highway systems because it is generally accepted that counties and cities will not do nearly as good of a job as the state has in the past maintaining these roads. This is a point of contention both on a local level and among dissenting state level politicians. If the state needs to downsize, but the local agencies can't afford to up-size, then the happy medium is to place that responsibility with a much larger regional cooperative who can do everything the state can, and possibly better.
Regional road systems are a way to completely rethink the way roads are maintained vs. the old method of relying either on a larger state or a smaller local agency. Many state DOT's have become overwhelmed as states have grown massively in population and demands placing total responsibility on a central agency that is far less flexible than what is needed to keep up with fast changing demands on their own system coupled with a high number of small jurisdictions all needing to be handled individually. While authority for roadway financing and standards should still ultimately rest with a state DOT, the role of the state DOT could certainly stand to change to a more administrative role and less as an agency solely responsible for all aspects of roads across a state. Nonetheless, this is only possible if that role is transferred to regions large enough to handle that responsibility. Clearly the current method is not working as states are reducing staff and cutting back on maintenance due to being increasingly strained financially as population and lane mileage continues to increase while purchasing power diminishes.
States at present are generally seeking to place more responsibility on a local level without either providing additional funding nor expecting any accountability from the local agencies that they entrust these roads to. It is a large paradox to entrust increasingly heavy responsibility on local governments while giving them home rule when these local agencies actually need more assistance from the state to maintain their roads properly. The only reason these local agencies need this help is because they are unable to staff their agencies in such a way to provide state-level maintenance standards making it nearly impossible for most local agencies to maintain their roads frequently enough nor comply with state/federal standards. This creates a co-dependent situation with sporadic assistance and many problems ignored. In fact, most states tend to own a very small ratio of the highway network, and very few maintain the majority of roads eligible for federal-aid. This means that counties and cities remain on the hook for thousands of miles of roads in each state that are far too expensive to be their sole responsibility.
In contrast, states that do maintain a majority of a state's roads are finding that the political will to create an adequate statewide funding source has not kept up with the demands to maintain such a road system. Budget shortfalls and predatory taxation through extreme fees are some of the ways that these states have been trying to bridge the gap, and this unfairly punishes citizens for the lack of political will in the state legislature to raise gas and sales taxes to adequate levels. If they are wishing to push the levying of funds to a local level, that support is likely to be stronger when handing it to a regional collective vs. smaller counties and cities. If another option was available aside from transferring more roads onto small local governments who are constrained on raising revenues and work within very tight budget margins then perhaps a balance could be achieved. This is the only way that high engineering standards and efficiency can be retained similar to a state agency while subsequently relieving the states of added responsibility: especially in states that by and large have doubled and even tripled in population in less than half of a century.
Regionalization would create an interesting scenario with possibilities that are not one size fits all. Unlike a state DOT, a region could set specific policies related to the needs of their own regions. As previously mentioned, states could downsize their state system to backbone arterial highways while counties and municipalities could still be relieved of direct maintenance responsibility of roads ranging from main thoroughfares to entire road networks.
Regional roads are best designed as a comprehensive system, but maybe the only way to get a myriad of local agencies to agree to such a plan is to only place that responsibility on certain roads keeping the most local streets local. This means developing a regional primary "farm-to-market" network instead of requiring the transition of entire road systems to one agency. The other option is covered in the Consolidated Traffic Operations Plan where only traffic control services are shared in the region. The farm-to-market approach would be best as a hybrid of the two meaning full regional control on some roads and only traffic control on others that are otherwise maintained by the local authorities. However, a farm-to-market approach is nowhere near as cost-efficient as a centralized approach, and it would only typically work in higher population areas. In fact, the best way to roll out a regional road system is not to start with a farm-to-market system but to instead start with traffic control. When it becomes clear that the merger of traffic operations has been extremely beneficial to all member agencies, they are more likely to consider transferring other road maintenance operations to the region. The farm-to-market approach should generally be viewed as this: some counties or cities aren't willing to hand over all of their roads, but will transfer a few, so these holdouts will be given this privilege in order to provide ample financing to the system as a whole.
Issues such as this and other answers to questions are described in better detail in the post entitled Regional Roads: Answers to Questions and Customization for Local Needs
Regional roads do not necessarily have to be a completely separate ownership structure. Unlike state-owned local roads, counties and cities should have far more authority in regards to major road projects, major road funding and encroachment on businesses and residences. That is why a regional board would be needed to incorporate local government into the organization much like how a state DOT has a DOT board except that board members would be actively operating as county and city administrators within their own jurisdiction. Since most states have around 25% of their roads on the federal-aid highway network and another 5% designated non-federal-aid collector, then regional responsibility would basically fill in the gap between the state and local level so that if the state owns 10% of the state's road network, the regional agency would at least own the remaining 20-25% of roads of higher functional classification that the state does not own. However, it is best that the regional agency either be contracted to maintain or completely own all other roads in most counties and cities. This means that separate city and county systems should be reserved only for either the most high population areas or areas where a regional system is defined within a single county boundary. That threshold should be as follows:
Full regional responsibility for local road maintenance would be required in:
- Counties with unincorporated populations of less than 50,000 residents
- Cities/towns with populations less than 3,500 residents
- Townships/boroughs with populations less than 25,000 residents
Partial local road maintenance, with only traffic control and/or certain local agency roads under regional jurisdiction, would be permitted in:
- Counties with an unincorporated population not less than 50,000 residents but not more than 100,000 residents (unincorporated population excludes municipal population)
- Cities/towns with a population of not less than 5,000 residents on a municipal level but not more than 10,000 residents
- Townships/boroughs with populations less than 50,000 residents
Beyond this, regional DOT's should have similar powers to state DOT's on how much responsibility they have for remaining non-federal-aid local roads with some guidelines in place. Generally it is viewed that a low population county or city is not truly financially capable of providing adequate road maintenance so all roads within those jurisdictions should fall under direct responsibility of the regional DOT per the thresholds described above. However, these other local roads would be best funded differently via the respective local agency essentially paying into the regional system as a means of being relieved of that responsibility with their own funds in order to avoid operating a separate street department. The separate regions should also have to work within guidelines set by the state DOT meaning that regional standards should be in substantial compliance with state standards. This is why the only places where it may not be beneficial to have regional DOT's operating non-federal aid roads are in wealthier or higher population cities and counties where the tax base is strong enough and population high enough that a local agency might be more effective. However, if that local agency still does not meet the needs of the public, the public would have a right to demand the transfer of those roads over to a regional DOT. This is why higher population areas are allowed to opt out. Note that opting out is restricted in middle population counties, cities, towns and townships.
Another approach to regionalization is to use it as a means to combat population losses in rural areas. By requiring that any county below a certain population must be combined with other counties, cities and towns into a regional unit until it reaches a population threshold, better established urban counties improve their existing structure while small rural counties can benefit from the better structure and cost benefits of tapping into much larger regions. Clearly a county with 600,000 residents can sustain itself without joining a larger region, but a county with 12,000 residents is not financially independent enough to operate its own road system correctly or efficiently.
The regional road systems are not like that. A set region is formed, and all jurisdictions within that region are ideally restricted to those boundaries with exception to two or more whole regions joining forces. Most regional agreements are about survival when a low population area completely lacks resources to provide a service independent of another approximate local agency. With the set boundaries, an allowance is made for one of more agencies to opt out, but these same agencies may return if the issue is re-negotiating the contract to better benefit the local agency in question. As long as the minimum population threshold is met, a county or city leaving would not destroy the whole system, but every effort should be made to make sure they return. In addition, "gutting" the cooperative may be necessary in some cases where if full road maintenance does not work out, a transition to a farm-to-market method or limiting the joint function to only traffic operations may be a worthwhile consideration.
Overall, collectives organizing from a local level instead of from a state level are not ideal due to the unstable nature of such agreements except as part of a pilot project. However, the need to design them in this manner is necessary to prove to state legislatures that something like this can work. If they are successful, then the state legislature can take additional steps to solidify the unions of local agencies for the goal of having far fewer agencies directly maintaining roads. The Steps to Creating a Regional Road System article includes two pilot projects as well as greater detail how to transition a nuclear county/city model into a regional system. Regions as designed are intended to replace part or all county responsibility and at least part of the municipal responsibility for roads. That can't be done if single counties and cities get angry over the details and choose to opt out or defund their portion of the consolidated road network. Instead, a regional takeover of roads is to be done in lieu of using state forces, but this cannot be done unless these systems are fully established statewide. In addition, the creation of a statewide cooperative will also be useful to protect the union of local agencies if a large number drop out. For instance, if 50 out of 100 counties drop out, the remaining 50 counties will be less able to function as smaller regions and will need to operate statewide: especially if contracted counties are in a region with a higher dropout rate.
For this reason, regional systems should functionally be viewed as separate state agencies not amalgams of local governments where all matters have to be handled by going to each member agency. Due to this, the state should in rare cases reserve the option to seize control of a region that fails on its duties. This means if there is internal corruption, misuse of funding or extenuating circumstances that render a region unable to construct or maintain roads at the same levels as other regions that the state should reserve the right to take over a regional DOT for a set period of time. At present there is no mechanism in place to assure that all counties are maintaining roads to the same levels system-wide in most states. In these instances, the state will temporarily seize control of all roads in the region changing regional routes to state secondary and assuming authority for existing agreements with local agencies for remaining local roads until the end of the contract (assuming a 5-10 year contract). However, the design of regions should dictate that such a seizure would almost never happen. Unlike counties and cities, these agencies are larger, better funded and better able to do the job they are assigned than almost any local agency.
In some ways, pilot projects of regionalization have already been tested via city-county consolidation. Through this process, it has been well-demonstrated that road maintenance standards almost always improved in the combined entity vs. the two agencies operating separately. Nonetheless, this approach avoids the true test of whether this can work: the addition of neighboring counties. Nowhere has an entire metropolitan area been consolidated into a "super-city", but on a specific service level this becomes possible.
Thus, pilot projects should always start with the following criteria and a population that preferably exceeds 150,000 of the combined pilot agencies:
1. At least two coterminous counties (unincorporated) and at least two cities/towns within those counties (if they exist)
2. At least four coterminous cities/towns/townships
3. At least four coterminous (unincorporated) counties
4. One county and at least three cities/towns within that county [note: works best if cities/towns combined make up close to half of county population]
These pilot projects, if successful, will determine if the agencies have enough repertoire to maintain this union and if they can combine with other agencies. If necessary, pilot projects can be divided across an entire region testing every part of the region where, when completed, the successful ones will be combined and the unsuccessful ones will return to prior operations with the issue revisited after issues are addressed that caused the failure.
Note that a more detailed description of two pilot projects is described in The Steps to Create a Regional Road System. Indeed, the regional strategy is best suited to be begun in this method, because it needs to be tested on a local level and perfected before it is rolled out on a larger regional or statewide level. The strategies described both use the boundaries of a regional planning commission while starting with the development of a small urban area regional district.
In any of these pilot projects, it starts with engineers. Essentially one engineer per 100,000 residents in a region is hired in the pilot to oversee roads not maintained by the state through a state or federal grant running 1-3 years meaning that a region with 300,000 residents would have three engineers with the first hired also a professional traffic operations engineer (PTOE). The need for a traffic operations engineer is especially important to assist the local governments in unifying standards on traffic control, which vary wildly per agency. The team would be assigned to see if a central authority can successfully be established over a number of county and municipal agencies within that pilot district with the task of streamlining operations, securing funding sources, identifying important routes and establishing regional standards. Each region selected is based on the federal regional planning districts (NOT MSA's), and a federal program should be developed that provides funding to test regional road system strategies.
During the pilot project, no actual reorganization would take place aside from prior reorganization proposed, and counties and cities would continue to operate their own agencies except that they would be under the supervision of regional engineers throughout the duration of the pilot project. New positions would be temporary in nature with actual job titles retained. In other words, each employee would assume a role to test the efficacy of a new organization. Representatives from the state DOT and local agencies would continue to work together with the engineers to assess what worked best and how the process could be improved. Preferably every state interested in the pilot project should have one test region funded per state, and federal funds could help to boost this process if the federal government was involved. However, multiple regions could apply to the pilot program based on a majority vote of all affected counties in a region competing for the chance to participate.
Pilot projects could also test a farm-to-market strategy where instead of combining departments, the entire planning region gets the state and/or local governments to set aside funding to test maintenance of a new system of regional routes. This means that primary collectors and arterials in each region would transfer from the county/municipal level to the regional level for the duration of the project. The strategy would be used to determine if maintenance levels improved, costs were managed or reduced and to see if it would have a negative effect on the local agencies to transfer a portion of their responsibility to a regional entity. The farm-to-market approach, despite the agrarian name, should ONLY be tested in a high population metropolitan area.
Once the framework is in place and the pilot project is deemed successful, the entire regional entity would be officially formed. Instead of existing as a test project, local agencies, equipment and facilities would all be combined under the management of the new regional entity. If the farm-to-market approach is employed, the special district engineers would sign an agreement with the state and counties to formally take control of all collector and arterial roadways not otherwise owned by the state. These new roads would be assigned new route numbers based on a statewide plan with the state also working to transfer roads to the regional system that are of lesser importance provided that the regional plan is adopted statewide. If the new regional entity encompasses entire agencies, the new regional agency would then begin the process of phasing out individual county and municipal street departments in all member agencies. If local agencies are phased out, then all local employees should be automatically transferred to the staff of the regional DOT with attrition put in place to help the new agency adjust its employment levels over time. Likewise, the state DOT, all involved counties/cities and the state legislature would have to agree to a funding method and funding formula tested during the pilot project to provide all regional agencies meaning that a dedicated portion of state highway funds or local funds would have to provided to each region annually based on mileage and population.
Looking at a sample state, the road system funding would need to be changed. Sample state has 100,000 miles of roads on their total road system and 15,000 miles under state control. Imagine that the state runs on a budget of $2 billion annually with 85% going to the state to maintain 15,000 miles of roads and 15% going to the counties and cities in addition to $1 billion annually going directly to counties through local gas taxes and sales taxes. In the regional plan, it would be assumed that the ratio would change. The state would transfer 5,000 miles of roads to the regions retaining 10,000 miles of roads. The regions would also receive $12,000 per mile for routine maintenance of state-owned roads. Thus the budget looks like this:
- Under the existing budget, $300 million goes to local governments and $1.7 billion is reserved by the state
- The proposed budget would transfer an additional $120 million to the regions for state highway maintenance
- An additional $300 million will be required for regional control of an additional 25,000 miles of roads formerly owned by counties, cities and towns
- This means that the funding ratio would change so that 69% of $2 billion is reserved by the state for state highway construction and administration, 21% is transferred to the regional agencies and 10% is reserved for counties and cities
- If the sample state chooses NOT to use regional forces to maintain state roads, then the ratio would be 75% for state highway construction and maintenance, 15% for regional agencies and 10% reserved for counties and cities
- It should be noted that the 10% reserved for counties and cities would include a retainer by the regions for regional maintenance of county roads and city streets in agencies that do not have their own forces
- In the $1 billion annually going directly to counties and cities, at least 25% would be split off and given directly to regional agencies with the remaining funding going to the local level. This would fund major construction projects on regional roads
GOVERNANCE OF REGIONAL ROAD AGENCIES
The setup should be somewhat similar to a state DOT, but accountability needs to be brought into consideration. Preferably a commission system should be adapted meaning these would be called "regional road commissions". The organization consists of three main parts: a regional board consisting of at least one representative from each county and each city with a population of at least 10,000 residents, an engineering division and a regional roads commissioner. This means if three counties and 15 cities are in a region with 4 of those over 10,000 residents then the board is made up of 7 members. The second part will involve the engineering division. The engineering division will have primary decision-making authority in regards to day-to-day operations and will consist of at least 3 full-time civil engineers meaning one engineer for every 100,000 residents although as many can be hired as budgets allow. The chief engineer should not only be a civil engineer, but also a PTOE. The engineering division will also have supervisory authority over all employees in each region. Lastly will be the regional roads commissioner. This could be either an appointed position from the existing board or an at-large elected position with a term limit of 4-6 years. If term limits are not used, then the position should be appointed to avoid lifelong commissioners and too much politicization of regional road agencies. The regional roads commissioner would serve as a liaison between the public and the highway agency allowing greater public input directly into the agency instead of indirectly through county and municipal leaders.
Much interest has been sparked in recent years on bringing the private sector into the road maintenance process. This would be much easier in a regional system than on a county or city level. Perhaps not every aspect should be privatized, but many duties such as engineering services, traffic control, safety projects, construction work, special equipment needs and other duties could be handled by private firms and contractors. Unlike in a county or city where a private firm or contractor can usually only be hired on a consultant basis, a private firm could work full-time for a region providing services for the region under annual contracts. This would be ideal during the transitional process and could be continued on a case-by-case basis once the system is established.
The following rules should apply to all regional road networks and should be codified in state law:
- Regional road districts must be laid out based on regional planning commissions with boundaries of each region restricted the boundaries of the regional planning commission. They are NOT laid out based on MSA's (correction from the previous version).
- Agreements to join the cooperative are done on a 5-10 year basis meaning that at the end of the term the local agency has the option to leave, change the terms or renew.
- Pilot projects during formation of the system do not have to be laid out based on regional planning commissions to allow for suitable partnerships to form based on need rather than geography.
- Regional road districts must have a combined population of at least 300,000 residents to operate independent of other regions.
- If the combined population is below 300,000 residents, the region must combine with an adjoining region. The adjoining region should have the lowest population of all adjoining regions. Up to three regions may be combined as a means to bring population to the acceptable threshold.
- State DOT's may contract all state road maintenance in a region to a regional DOT, but ownership of the entire state road network may not be transferred to a regional DOT.
- A region with 1,000,000 or more residents will have broader powers including the ability to maintain not only surface state routes, but also interstates and freeways/expressways on behalf of the state DOT.
- Farm-to-market regional systems should preferably be limited only to regions with 1,000,000 or more residents although they may be considered in any region.
- State DOT's reserve the right to temporarily take over a region that is negligent in their duties. They may contract this responsibility to a private firm during the duration of the seizure. The takeover may only last 3-5 years.
- Sparsely populated states where setting up regions would only result in two or less regional systems should instead pursue the creation of a separate state agency to handle local roads in lieu of responsibility falling under the state DOT directly.
- E.G. a state like Wyoming with a population of less than 750,000 would organize roads under a statewide county highway commission that would consolidate, engineer, manage and supervise county road and city street departments into a single unit independent of the state DOT.
- Statewide county highway agencies would most likely follow the model where engineering oversight is handled by the state agency with some limited maintenance activities (such as maintenance of traffic control devices and shared equipment) but otherwise counties and cities would operate independently. This is due to the geographical issues.
Discussed throughout this plan are the backbone regional routes. The regional routes as a whole would form what would otherwise be a state secondary system (with state-owned roads forming the primary routes). Regional routes are not a county road system, and with the way the plan is designed should have its own form of highway markings. While a county route marker could be used, the fact is that using one would be misleading and incorrect. Preferably regional highways should be laid out with two types of road markers. A regional primary marker indicating highway-type collector and arterial roads and a regional secondary marker for other local roads contracted to the regional agency. Including the regional name might be problematic thus why a design without one is also shown. The images below show some possible designs for such markers. In the second marker, the text "REGIONAL ROAD" may be replaced with the name of the region if text fits. "FULTON" refers to the county name.