Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Regional Roads: Why Regional Roads? (Part 1)

Devolution nationwide continues to gain steam as the political environment favors increased local control.  The purported benefits of this are debatable, but the reality is that placing more and more authority for roads on a high number of small counties, cities and towns is a very popular bad idea.  Unfortunately, increasing local control in terms of service delivery has very mixed results with no real alternative being offered at present.  It should be noted that there are success stories usually in the case of:

  • Wealthier cities breaking off of very high population counties (usually with a population of around 25,000-45,000)
  • Very large population counties regaining control of their own roads
  • Consolidated city-counties (popular primarily in the South) 

Noting these exceptions, it is still important to point out that counties, townships and municipalities by their very nature almost always both duplicate services and raise basic costs.  This is amplified not only because the state operates a separate system within the same county but also when other counties and cities are in close proximity spreading the available tax base very thin.  It is important to note that counties cannot grow to assume more responsibility to enhance their tax base nor services.  While cities can grow, it is not often that a city is capable of growing large enough to provide even county-level services.  The average city or town usually has a population of between 1,000 and 5,000 residents, so the comparison to a major city such as New York, Atlanta or Chicago would be disingenuous.  What if this barrier was removed for cities, counties and townships to provide certain services?  What if these geographically constricted cities, counties and towns could turn to their neighbors and start shaking hands to combine resources in such a way to provide higher standard, more cost-efficient and better maintained roads than they currently can within the confines of their geography while maintaining their local autonomy?  The regional roads plan is how that can be done.

Moreover, it is not at all beneficial when the responsibility for roads transfers from the state to a low population county, city or town: especially when state-level financing must be divided across a very large number of jurisdictions.  The stated benefits of local control are simply not realized when a technocratic state agency reverts that responsibility to a large number of small political entities with the funding pie too small to assure that the purchasing power, financial flexibility or technical expertise is in place to provide an equivalent service to what the state is otherwise able to provide.  LTAP (Local Technical Assistance Program) is also not working, because it is not raising the standards high enough under the current structure nor promoting uniformity across all jurisdictions.  More oversight is needed.  If the state is not going to relieve counties and small municipalities of what they are unable to do well, another way is needed.


First, it should be noted that state populations and their subsequent road networks are significantly larger than they used to be.  When the Brookings Institute proposed consolidating entire county road networks under state control in the 1930's, the nation's public highway system was still in its infancy.  There were very few multi-lane highways, most roads were still unpaved and state highway systems nationwide were not even a decade old.  North Carolina was the first state to adopt this plan.  While the North Carolina plan has been successful, the system has not been free of problems.  The reality is that the states that embraced the North Carolina plan have either abandoned it (such as Maryland) or are struggling to balance modern transportation demands with the maintenance and improvement of smaller local roads (such as Virginia).  Inter-regional conflicts for road funding further endanger such systems with accusations that the entire road network in one region is being cheated out of road funding in favor of another in lieu of a few major routes.  State DOT's are frustrated that they have to maintain local roads when it means less money to cover large-scale construction projects.  Today, only four states fully adopted the North Carolina plan and only 20% of states have adopted a system that fully relieves counties and low population municipalities of maintenance of federal-aid eligible roadways.

On top of that, the states that have adopted this special state-controlled county road system either partially or in whole have seen a huge increase in population from when the systems were established.  North Carolina had 3 million residents in 1931.  Today that population is approaching 10 million.  Virginia, who established the similar Byrd Road Act in 1932, had a population of 2.5 million when the system was created.  Today, that population has exploded to 8.2 million.  However, despite both states having more than tripled in population, that population tends to be clustered in a few major metropolitan areas.  Rural areas in both states have been growing slowly or losing population in favor of these larger metropolitan areas thus leaving these counties, cities and towns increasingly strapped for funds.  This means that rural areas need to be looking beyond their boundaries to create efficiency, offer a full scope of services and provide high quality public roads.  Even urban areas by and large are likewise being very constrained by balancing local needs with the needs of the entire state: especially when metropolitan counties are carved up into many smaller municipalities.  The paradox of the urban areas is that the push for self-governance increases with the population, so the economies of scale needed for good roads often do not materialize.

It is also no surprise that the North Carolina plan states are also increasingly upset by the lack of funding and action on a state level for their congested, outmoded roads.  It should be pointed out, however, that one of the four North Carolina Plan states is not having the difficulties that Virginia and North Carolina are having.  Delaware, one of the smallest states in the nation, is made up of only three counties.  Functioning on a compact level, Delaware has been able to maintain tremendous efficiency by keeping state control of both major roads and county roads partly because it is still close enough to the center of government to be manageable.  With no competing regions or large swaths of rural area far from the state capital, it is probably the most successful example of the North Carolina plan.  It obviously helps that the entire state of Delaware is in effect one region.

States like Virginia have become financially and structurally overwhelmed with the costs of maintaining local roads under a single state agency.  Perhaps dividing that responsibility into regions will help restore the efficiency that Virginia's unique road system was designed to do.

Regardless of this situation, local control advocates in their defense of devolution cite examples of larger population jurisdictions that do a good job while ignoring the fact that the majority of local governments are very low in population and are never going to measure up.  For instance, Nashville-Davidson County in Tennessee has an excellent roads program with high standards and well-maintained roads, but they are also a consolidated city-county with a high population, strong tax base and tremendous economies of scale.  With a population of over 600,000 residents, the agency functions like a state within a state as it should.  With a well-financed and efficient government they are able to provide far better than most cities, counties or even state agencies could, but that benefit stops cold at the county line.  In other words, while they enjoy the benefits and have the staffed resources to provide that level of service, the same can't be said for most counties surrounding Nashville nor in further out rural counties such as counties in the Cumberland Plateau to the east.  Counties such as Meigs have a little over 11,000 residents and Bledsoe has approximately 1,000 more residents than Meigs.  Even though statewide funding is more than adequate overall, the 95 counties that make up Tennessee are far too numerous to provide the quality and consistency that residents of Nashville-Davidson County enjoy.  What if the benefits that Nashville-Davidson enjoys were expanded into the entire metropolitan region of Nashville or beyond?

A sharp decline in road quality is observed here as Ridge Road in Nashville-Davidson County crosses into Cheatham County.  Cheatham County has a population of under 40,000 compared to Davidson's 600,000.  However, both are part of the Nashville MPO (Google Street View image).

Local control advocates will go further to state that this is simply an urban-rural divide where it should just be accepted that rural areas have less money and that things will improve as the population catches up, but how much population does it take?  A county with 11,000 resident is not likely to bloom into a county with 100,000 residents any time soon, and that is usually the threshold necessary for a county to be effective at road maintenance unless such a county is either heavily subsidized by the state or is able to use state forces to maintain their road networks.  Major road safety deficiencies can also be found on the local roads in much higher population counties such as those surrounding Nashville as demonstrated by the photo above.  Regardless, Tennessee DOT is not interested in assuming local responsibility for roads even if the counties and cities paid them for the privilege.  In fact, local agencies being able to voluntarily pay state agencies to provide routine maintenance services on locally-owned roads and streets has rarely ever been successful.  The few times such programs were enacted they were typically short-lived.  It was always a good idea, but the states themselves saw no benefit in stretching their resources to cover lower classification roads.

Instead of waiting for perfect circumstances, action needs to be taken.  Public safety should not be jeopardized and local accountability suppressed just to divide road responsibility based on an inefficient and archaic government structure laid out in the days of horse and buggy.  The conditions present in the 1930's with smaller local governments that led to the North Carolina Plan are still present today, but the increase in population has made it a major factor in fewer areas than the 1930's or even the 1980's.  Nevertheless, weak accountability and local political whims continue to make locally-maintained roads a sketchy proposition.  What has changed since the 1930's the most, however, are the increasingly powerful metropolitan areas competing with rural areas far from those cities for transportation funding while the revenue sources on a state level continue to decline.  While these issues might justify more local control, that does not mean that local control should necessarily shift all the way to a county or municipal level.  Instead this suggests that a state's local road responsibility should be divided into regions that rest above a county level but below a state level as a means of tackling transportation issues related to smaller areas that couple nearby rural areas with approximate larger urban areas.  Nashville doesn't need to worry about Memphis, but they should be there to help their neighboring counties and cities in greater Nashville have access to the resources that they currently enjoy.


Another issue is the structure of counties: primary those east of the Mississippi River.  Rural county roads in many Western states typically have much higher road standards despite a sparse population due to the presence of a small number of very large counties.  In observing these large counties, it is clear that road funding distribution from the state is at far higher levels with far greater efficiency even in counties that have a very low population.  In other words, if the state has $250 million a year to spend on local services, that $250 million would stretch much further in a state with 40 counties than the same state with 100 counties.  If each county got the same amount, 40 counties would get $6.25 million a year to cover all basic services while the same county in a state with 100 counties would receive $2.5 million.  Guess which one is more likely to spend some of that money to hire professional staff and develop a traffic operations unit?

The example above shows how a county with 2,000 residents in Washington State or California is in far better shape than the same in Georgia or Tennessee.  Especially important is that professional engineering standards are more consistently followed when a state has far fewer local jurisdictions fighting for a piece of the pie simply because the state can more easily finance state-aid funds for local engineering programs as was shown.  If the state personally financed one traffic engineer and one PTOE at $200,000 a piece, the cost for the state with 40 counties would be $8 million while the same in the state with 100 counties would be $20,000,000.  Needless to say, the state with more counties is less likely to finance something like that. The result is that it is much more possible for counties to establish a proper organizational structure when state funding on the local level is not spread thin over a very large number of jurisdictions.  It is clear that these same goals are not being met in all but a handful of states east of the Mississippi River because state-local cooperation is weaker, average rural county populations are lower and fragmentation of government is much higher.  In other words, you do not necessarily need the state to take over county roads and municipal streets to bring local roads to proper levels, but the best results come when a state has fewer political subdivisions covering much larger areas with equivalently larger populations and tax bases.  Merging counties and cities is unlikely, but doing this on a specific-service level is possible.

Consider the eastern vs. western states.  Tennessee and Virginia both have 95 counties.  In comparison, Oregon has only 36 counties and Washington State has only 39 counties despite both being much larger in land area than either Tennessee or Virginia.  Oregon has 98,000 square miles and Washington State has 71,000 square miles.  In comparison, Virginia has 43,000 square miles and Tennessee has 42,000 square miles.  In other words, both Virginia and Tennessee have 60% more counties while both states are at least 40% smaller.  While these smaller counties may provide some benefits over large geographic areas, they do not provide an efficient means of assuring that the locally-owned transportation networks are well maintained.  It is simply too fragmented to provide the funding or oversight necessary.  This is what drove the Mid-Atlantic states, including Virginia, to pursue a top-down approach to local road maintenance in the first place.  However, the deeper history and political dominance of these counties is undeniable requiring that an alternative approach must be considered.  If the state does not want or is unable to handle the responsibility in Tennessee unlike Virginia and the counties are not able to do an acceptable job, then is there an alternative?  Yes, in fact, there is.

Compare this road in Jefferson County, WA to the previous road shown in Cheatham County, TN.  Jefferson County has a population just under 30,000 residents compared to the nearly 40,000 in Cheatham County yet Oak Bay Road, a county road, is maintained to equivalent levels of state highways in Tennessee.  The main difference is that Jefferson County is one of 39 counties in lieu of 95 counties in Tennessee.  (Photo from Google Street View)


Comparing states that generally lack major engineering issues along roads maintained by local governments and those that have them typically, a pattern emerged.  That pattern is that both the land area per county and population per county needs to be above a certain threshold to provide an adequate level of service per county.  The other observed factors that could affect local road quality include a very high level of devolution where ratios of local control exceed 90% (such as in Iowa), counties that are contracted to maintain state-owned roads (such as in Wisconsin and Michigan), county responsibility is limited due to the presence of townships (such as in New Jersey and New York) and a greater percentage of state funding is directed more to a local level (such as in all three examples).  Nevertheless, good results with this strategy have primarily been consistently noticed in only a few Midwestern states and are not reliable enough to be an acceptable variable.  It should also be pointed out that in those Midwestern states (Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin specifically) that the state is a strong partner to counties, which has much to do with a certain political culture within the state.  This is why neither these Midwestern states nor states with township road systems are being used as examples when factoring in average county size and population.  The factors shown here relate primarily to states that lack such a culture with local governments that work largely independent of each other.  In other words, an environment that fosters good roads requires either greater economies of scale or a good roads culture.

Land area and population in relation to the number of local jurisdictions are both major factors in local road quality.  The importance of land area is that the presence of fewer jurisdictions mean that larger overall funding is available for each jurisdiction even if the jurisdiction has an otherwise very low population.  Similarly a higher population threshold is needed to create a coordinated effort among local agencies statewide to adopt higher standards by removing financial limitations as an excuse for both inaction and lack of intergovernmental cooperation.  Having these factors in place also makes it easier for a state to retrofit a local jurisdiction to handle its own needs such as financing a county engineer.  While it is no guarantee of best results, both the land area should exceed 1,500 square miles and average county population should exceed 100,000 with the average population preferably exceeding 200,000 residents to be able to achieve adequate engineering standards.  This is the only way that costs can be kept down while standards can remain sufficiently high.  Looking at 12 states in the West and Southeast shown in the charts below, only four exceeded the land area threshold and only two exceeded the 200,000 average population threshold.  Four states fell below the necessary 100,000 per county threshold and three had a land area under 500 square miles.  Clearly those states with the lowest numbers respectively have the most problems running an effective highway agency below a state level.

The charts above show the land area per counties and population per counties.  This is important to demonstrate that having fewer counties as well as higher populations are able to achieve higher engineering standards as a whole.  Obviously not all counties meet this population threshold, but it helps to have a higher land area to achieve better funding distribution and a higher population per county assures that more counties have adequate resources to properly maintain roads.  As you can see Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Virginia and Colorado rank lowest on population per counties and, except Virginia, similarly have trouble adequately managing a local roads program.  Georgia, Virginia and Tennessee also have the lowest land area per counties making management of local programs without state help difficult.

The classic remedy to this problem is local government consolidation.  However, the political realities are that a top down mandate to consolidate many counties into far fewer counties and municipalities has been very unpopular and has had almost no cases of happening since the 1930's.  The public may support consolidating some services, but the situation turns nasty when you start talking merging of police, fire and school districts into some mega-county.  Lampooned by state leaders who see it as a hot potato topic, quickly shot down by the local agencies who have intent to protect their power and domain and generally unpopular with the local populace who view these now long-established counties as a part of their identity makes local consolidation difficult.  The idea of completely eliminating even one county usually requires a financial crisis sufficient that a county is forced to consolidate with another.  What makes financial sense does not make political sense.  Municipal changes have been somewhat more frequent with very low population cities and towns often dissolved into the counties that they are located in or merged with other cities/towns although larger cities continue to carve out portions of counties and subsequently the county's tax base.  It doesn't matter if a county has 400,000 residents if all but 40,000 residents reside within an unincorporated area.  With little incentive to change that, the only other option besides the state level is to create a new functional layer of government that exists below the state level but higher than the county or municipal level.  In other words, local maintenance of roads based on county and municipal boundaries should be replaced with a regional structure that creates a "state within a state".

Continue to Part 2 - REGIONAL ROADS: HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS See Part 2 >>>>

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