Sunday, February 15, 2015

Farm-To-Market Cooperative Plan - Description [Part 1]

Should every cul-de-sac be part of a comprehensive, consolidated road network?  In terms of economic sense, yes, but perhaps states and regions want to maintain local control for the smallest streets.  This means that one potential option to solving issues with local roads is to avoid a comprehensive approach choosing instead to designate only certain roads as part of an expanded highway system that is large enough to cover every consequential roadway while keeping the truly local roads local.  This plan scales down the comprehensive approach that shifts an entire responsibility onto one or another agency, but the ideas that will be presented here offer some new approaches to an old idea.  The idea for farm-to-market roads as a concept are nothing new in the United States, and the structure varies by state.  Usually they fall into one of three categories: 
  • A system of county roads that receive special designations and/or funding from the state (Iowa, Florida)
  • Roads maintained by the county in lieu of a dominant township government (New Jersey, Wisconsin) 
  • State maintained roads of lower functional classification, funding and usage (Missouri, Texas). 

Farm to market systems are designed with the intent of leaving only the truly local roads local in lieu of other state systems where state responsibility is only placed on the most principal of corridors leaving the responsibility of many major highways in the hands of the local governments.  Typically, they only cover in conjunction with primary state routes about 25-35% of the overall road network although an exceptions exists today in one state: South Carolina.  Formerly Alaska had 50% of their roads under state control, but that ratio has since dropped to 35%.  The purpose of these farm to market roads are typically to provide very closeby highway access to nearly all residents of the state and/or to provide numbered routes to smaller towns, communities and neighborhoods not served by the principal thoroughfares.  The examples of county-maintained farm-to-market roads are irrelevant in the instance that the state controls these roads, but they are relevant to the development of a regional system for that purpose and often contain mileage caps that limit the mileage signed or maintained to a certain number of roads.  In Florida's example, the current farm-to-market system was actually formerly a state maintained, locally constructed system until it was downgraded in 1982. 


When the state controls farm-to-market roads, they are typically not actually referred to by that name.  Usually they carry the name "secondary", "supplemental", "state-aid" or "county route" with Texas the only state that actually uses that term for those roads.  The purpose of having a system divided into secondary and primary routes in many states aside from what is described above is to relieve counties of responsibility for roads that typically are of higher cost to maintain and responsibility creating a strain on local governments even though on a state level they are lower in cost and importance to maintain than major highways.  Across the country, varying degrees of farm-to-market highway systems exist with most maintained by the state government.  The ones that relate to the plan presented here are systems that range in ratio between 25 and 40% under state control and exist in 12 states, but primarily in the states of Texas, Missouri, Maine, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.  

In many cases farm-to-market systems contain a rule that at least some cost or responsibility is passed on to local governments even if the state owns and is otherwise responsible for those roads.   In Texas, farm-to-market roads in urban areas are maintained by the state, but construction costs are passed on the local governments.  Nonetheless, a farm-to-market system by design shares costs in such a way as to make administration, funding and maintenance more reliable and more cost efficient on roads that are of regional importance.  Farm-to-market roads also create a balance where the states have enough responsibility so that the state DOT is structured for higher standards and increased supervision in-house thus less reliant on contractors while counties and cities who lack the resources to provide sufficient maintenance supervision are generally prevented from maintaining roads of higher speeds and function.  In addition, farm-to-market roads offer an advantage over comprehensive systems in that you avoid the patchwork of "contract" local agencies meaning that cities, towns and certain counties are not able to opt out of state supervision of these roads except on a case-by-case basis.


The largest issue with local roads is the fact that not all "local" roads are truly local.  In fact, most states maintain less than half of federal-aid eligible roadways.  This means there is no consistent standard on what consists of a "farm-to-market" road.  States like Georgia, Tennessee and Montana are only responsible for about half of their farm-to-market mileage based on functional classification (NOTE: Georgia does not have an official farm-to-market category).  States like Kansas, Colorado and Oklahoma have no responsibility for farm-to-market category roads nor do they have any special statewide system designated for these roads.  This means that roadways that are dubbed as local by state authorities are not, in fact, local in all cases.  Inversely, states that do have larger farm-to-market networks are sometimes responsible for roads classified as "local".  Kentucky, for instance, has many functionally local state highways.  Nationwide, the functional highway system and its ratios is shown in the chart below.

Functional classifications from 2012 (Source: FHWA Statistics)

The functional classifications shown in the chart above described as follows: 
  • Principal Arterial (interstates, freeways, expressways and major surface highways): 5.4%
  • Minor Arterial (other major routes, mostly state maintained): 5.9%
  • Major Collector (minor state routes and major local roads): 13.1%
  • Minor Collector (shorter local connecting roads): 6.5%
  • Local (local connecting and local residential): 69.1%
What this chart demonstrates is that while most states require local agencies to maintain between 80 and 90% of the public road inventory, the actual local ratio is 69%.  In other words, 30.9% of the road system is considered higher classification than local with 24.4% of that total arterial or major collector.  State highway systems clearly are not lining up with that 25-31% ratio in most states with ratios maintained by the states averaging between 10 and 15% of the highway system.  Devolution advocates fail to note that this is the case assuming that these low state ratios are normal when in fact they are a tremendous strain on both county and state resources.  In fact, gas and other taxes tend to be far higher in states with substantial local control vs. states who maintain a larger ratio of highways while the percentage of roads in poor condition [see appendix at end] is typically higher in those same states as well.  In addition, when the state has too little responsibility it becomes an issue similar with local governments in that they are structurally less capable of doing as good of a job due to diminished economies of scale, fewer qualified staff members, fewer inspectors and greater reliance on contractors.  Thus, it is a myth to assume that a state with little direct responsibility will be able to provide better maintenance on state-owned roads and any evidence to the contrary is merely correlation.  

In addition, out of the 69% that is local, 10-15% of that dubbed "local" is actually not completely local.  This additional unofficial category, which will be dubbed "local connecting" often shows up as major roadways on other maps (such as Google) and should be differentiated from "local residential", which includes small dead-end roads, residential streets and most unpaved roads.  While useless for funding purposes, "local connecting" describes roads that are officially "local", but:

  • Often travel longer distances than other functionally local roads
  • Connect two or more roads
  • Often serve as access to established communities or popular recreation areas
  • Provide access to government facilities
  • Actually serve a limited highway function such as an alternate route for an inadequate collector or arterial route (unpaved or substandard)
  • Are often built to highway standards with higher speeds
  • May provide the only access in and out of a particular community where geographical constraints limit access (mountainous or coastal areas)

For federal funding purposes, local connecting roads are not defined, but in actuality many local roads dubbed local should be minor collector.  Thus, the actual roads that are of sufficient design, use and maintenance needs to justify being part of a state highway system actually range from 35-45% statewide in most states.  

This is where local governments have a problem.  The problem is that local agencies are often having to budget for both construction and maintenance of roads that are highway-type roads with major costs and responsibility involved as well as small, low-traffic local roads and streets.  The needs for both are very different, and the resources required are quite different.  Local governments are best suited for this latter category where they typically do the best job, but even then some local responsibility should be centralized when it involves technical matters that involve a traffic engineer.  The latter functionally local category usually requires more frequent maintenance, but is less technical to maintain while the former category is usually more durable, but repairs usually require the expertise of traffic engineers more frequently.  Having local governments responsible for major roads might work in the Plains states where local county roads are typically flat, unpaved, straight, have very low traffic volumes and construction costs are lower.  However, this is not so much true in the more populous and mountainous regions of the country.  In some of the most populous states, local connecting roads are often paved, two lanes and indistinguishable from collector roads other than the fact these roads are not designated with a yellow or purple line on a functional classification map.  While the states might give them ample means to construct these roads, the resources to maintain them well are what they lack.  This is why a new approach is needed to these roads that exist within that gray area between truly local roads and state highways.

(Former) federal-aid eligible roads such as these two rural Tennessee county roads (Tiger Creek Road in Carter County and Cane Creek Road in Fentress County) are county-maintained roads built with federal-aid funds to state highway standards.  While Tennessee has since downgraded these roads to minor collector (not eligible for federal-aid), in most states these roads would still be eligible.  This photo demonstrates that while both counties have done an excellent job keeping the pavement in good condition, routine maintenance in other areas is clearly lacking.


These days farm-to-market systems are in trouble.  Many reasons are being thrown around as an excuse for devolution of funding and responsibility to local governments, but the main ones involve the declining revenues from gas taxes.  The irony is that the other funding sources for local governments are not working very well either.  Property tax rates are routinely capped, and these are the only guaranteed funding source to local governments.  Many states also provide local government funding options in addition to their own funds.  One of those is a local sales tax initiative.  The problem is that sales taxes in rural areas are pretty much dependent on whether a community has a Wal-Mart, and communities that have long relied on sales taxes are seeing declining revenues partially due to internet sales and the overall decline in brick and mortar retail.  Otherwise, local option gas taxes and gasoline excise taxes are being used as funding sources for local governments.  None are enough and none are leading to any efficiency to adequately fund operations and maintenance for each individual county and municipality.  

Traditionally, the approach to substandard county roads that could not be fixed by other means was to simply expand the state highway system.  Instead of using state forces to maintain entire rural county road networks, the states decided to take over a larger percentage of federal-aid eligible roads along with some of the local connecting roads such as what was done in Kentucky, Missouri and South Carolina.  What typically happened is that the state would adjust local payments and/or raise the gas tax transferring thousands of miles over a short period of time to state control.  Usually this was coupled with a major road building program where the state would commence paving and reconstructing roads using federal-aid money where the counties were previously not doing this work.  The counties were then subsequently relieved of this responsibility after the upgrades to those roads were made allowing them to lower property taxes and focus on the least traveled roadways that were less technical to operate.  The majority of such initiatives were commenced during the 1930's-1950's with the last of such initiatives executed to a lesser extent in Tennessee during the early 1980's.  The plan worked well in most states throughout the 20th century, but had early failures in the 70's with widespread problems today.  It was controversial even in its day often viewed as a "power grab" using "roads for votes" despite the obvious benefits of centralizing the responsibility of road maintenance to the state level.

Kentucky maintains a very large state highway system consisting of 37% of their roads under state control.  This includes almost all federal-aid eligible routes and a few functionally local routes.  While the state does an excellent job on routine maintenance, it is clear that state funding is otherwise inadequate for any substantial local improvements.  If Kentucky's system was split into primary and secondary, a new division of responsibility could be created.  Secondary roads could then be constructed and resurfaced with local funds including local funding from state sources while the state would continue routine maintenance on these roads.  With that division of responsibility, perhaps the road system could be better maintained than it is today.

The funny thing about this approach was that major road building was also going on in states who did not adopt this system.  Many states in the Deep South also took advantage of federal-aid money and began also repaving and reconstructing these primitive roads into highway-type roads from the 1950's into the early 80's.  The difference was that these other states transferred these roads back to the counties when they were completed.  For years, counties struggled to maintain these new, expensive roads while the other states who took them over enjoyed well-maintained roads.  This situation, however, began to change as these roads aged and the states struggled to balance demands for newer, larger and more expensive to maintain roads vs. these two-lane lesser traveled highways when states were unwilling to raise taxes to cover them.  In contrast, counties who had complained bitterly for years about the deteriorating condition of their roads lead to states permitting counties to explore new revenue sources.  What made sense then stopped making sense, because there was an imbalance of funding due to shifting priorities and declining purchasing power.  

States who previously had ample and plentiful revenue through gas taxes were discovering that gas tax revenues were not keeping pace with inflation, economics and improving fuel-efficiency in cars.  This reality came at the worst time as the political climate changed so that legislators and governors were unwilling to massively raise taxes to cover the added costs to maintain large state highway networks.  Added to this was the fact that gas taxes have almost never been indexed to the rate of inflation.  Had these states indexed the gas taxes to inflation, revenue streams would have remained consistent and a "crisis" would have likely never taken place.  In the long term, brinksmanship ultimately costs much more as deteriorated roads are far more expensive to fix than roads on a regular maintenance schedule.

At the same time, counties were beginning to gain new revenue sources through changes in state laws that gained much stronger support than state-level revenue increases.  Local sales taxes, fees and local gas tax initiatives by and large have been more successful than state-level revenue increases meaning that counties and municipalities revenue streams are much better than in the past.  These new revenue sources became much more popular when pursued on a local level than when pursued on a state level.  For instance, one cent sales tax referendums are routinely voted in when advertised for use only within a single county while they have consistently failed in a referendum on a state or regional level.  This presents a problem for states who continue to be in charge of large state road systems with available funding for a road building operation largely transferring from a state to local level.  This has resulted in a desire to shift not just financial responsibility, but entire road responsibilities back to the local level.  While some devolution is merited, this is a very short-sighted and costly strategy.  That is the root of why the secondary roads strategy needs to be updated.


Regardless of this, what did not change is that the majority of counties and municipalities are still ill-suited for routine road maintenance.  What counties and cities gained in construction funding they did not gain in the ability to operate a professional road maintenance operation.  While local roads today are as smooth, modern and well-built as they have ever been, safety and engineering standards remain low with little chance of improving without either a huge increase in state-aid or sharing of services among local agencies to address more technical matters.  Local road systems, despite improved funding, also are a very inefficient means to maintain roads even though they remain a far more efficient way to distribute funds and obtain funding for road improvements off of the major highways.  This is why both vast local road networks and large state-controlled highway systems have in many ways failed.

In addition, the transfer of farm-to-market roads to the local level has led to poor connectivity.  Farm-to-market projects of the 50's and 60's ultimately were left incomplete, and local governments are not going to typically pool resources to improve system connectivity at a higher cost when they have competing priorities.  If the county maintains cul-de-sacs and collector roads and a collector road would cost $10 million to reconstruct when that $10 million is also needed to pave all of those cul-de-sacs, guess which is going to be more politically viable?  Central planning of farm-to-market roads led to greatly improved connectivity as compared to today where resources are focused on improving roadways around new development.  This has resulted in tremendous traffic congestion on major highways.  This means not only are the local governments not prioritizing maintenance: roadway connectivity is also not important to them.  In fact, local agencies are increasingly employing tactics to discourage drivers from using local highways even if it is the shortest and best route and would relieve traffic from a congested state highway.

It should also be noted about Texas's strategy with urban farm-to-market roads.  One thing notable in every state that has adopted a larger state role, the general agitation for expanded local control comes from urbanized areas while rural areas prefer not to be hit with that responsibility without a huge increase in state funding that never materializes.  Perhaps Texas's model of splitting maintenance and construction responsibility should be adopted for other farm-to-market systems across the nation.  In addition, Missouri has sought to transfer all construction funding to the local level for its farm-to-market road network.  Florida also operated under this model for 27 years.


The result of this is that if states consider farm-to-market roads in the future, the modern model needs to exist as a partnership between states, regional planning organizations and local agencies.  States help to define and organize the system while making sure that state-level funding is available to finance the system.  Regions plan routes and organize the system to provide routine maintenance on behalf of local agencies for farm-to-market roads.  Local agencies are provided funding and use local financing as their voice to make sure that projects meet their needs and not just the needs of the region or state agency, but they do not maintain the roads themselves.  In all, it is also not a bad idea to have local agencies collectively cover the cost of farm-to-market roads administered by a state or regional agency if the local agencies agree to the terms of such an agreement.  By trying some entirely new approaches that centralize certain responsibilities where it makes the most sense while subsequently becoming less reliant on state-aid and planning, it is entirely possible to rescue these centralized systems in the twelve states who still have them while adding new ones in other states.

The idea is to relieve counties and cities irrespective of jurisdiction the responsibility for maintenance of the longer, better built and more expensive to maintain local roads and streets that carry higher traffic volumes leaving local agencies to focus maintenance efforts only on truly local roads and streets.  The truth is that local governments are not the best stewards of roadways that carry through traffic.  These roads need a more intensive, concentrated funding effort coupled with better economies of scale to assure uniformity in maintenance standards at a lower cost to what local governments can provide on their own while not losing focus of which roads are truly regional in importance.  Local governments should be worried about everyday maintenance of roads that are truly local.  This plan involves transferring these highway-grade local roads to something besides individual counties and municipalities.


The new funding realities prove that unless the states who have large farm-to-market systems are willing and able to massively raise revenues that the approach of having states operate large state highway systems have a very uncertain future.  The majority of states who have these systems also happen to be located in fiscally conservative states whose very large state highway systems were originally created during a far more progressive era when state maintained roads were deemed useful as a political bargaining tool and local governments were not blindly trusted to properly plan, construct and maintain roads.  Since these states are unwilling today to raise revenues to levels to continue to support these large scale road systems, most are falling into disrepair which is helping to build support for a transfer of a high percentage of these roads to the counties and municipalities.  In addition, states that have this political climate fear political backlash from constituents who would view the takeover of thousands of miles of local roads and streets as a "power grab", which is why the state role must be limited.  In no case has there not been some push to eliminate part or all of farm-to-market roads.

  • In Texas, state leaders have been pushing to transfer farm-to-market roads in urban areas to cities and counties
  • In Missouri, the state is attempting to increase local responsibility for farm-to-market roads by passing on primary construction and some maintenance responsibility to the counties
  • In South Carolina, state leaders are looking to trim 30% of the state's responsibility as a means of avoiding a substantial tax increase to cover the state's large road system
  • In Louisiana, parishes are being pushed to take over as many state-owned roads as possible
  • In Pennsylvania, a turnback program has been in place since 1984 looking to shave off all non-federal-aid secondary state roads with over 10,000 miles already turned back
  • Alaska's state responsibility dropped from 50% a few years ago to 35% today

It doesn't appear to be a very fertile environment for expansion of state control, does it?  While this is an unfortunate turn of events, the new strategies described in part two including either a separate state agency or the development of local collectives are designed to duplicate what the state DOT could provide without bothering the state DOT with roads they deem unimportant.  In addition, this new approach has a better chance of being adopted in other states who have small-scale state road systems considering the low-cost structure and practical aspects that come from combining local funding with the benefits of a basic state-maintained road structure.

The new approach is also very hands-off approach in terms of funding, but a very hands-on approach to maintenance.  Instead of focusing on the system from the perspective of a state with a larger system, this is approached from the perspective of states with small state highway systems such as in Florida, New Jersey or Kansas.  In states like these, a statewide or regional agency effectively takes over engineering and routine maintenance of a large portion of the local road system while leaving the big ticket items local responsibility.  Along with that, most road funding is directed to the local level with larger construction, paving and other improvements the financial responsibility of the local governments.  It is similar to what Florida had years ago except that the state is not responsible for any new construction and ownership of the roads actually would not transfer to the state.  The roads are effectively local roads receiving state-level maintenance.

Rock Creek Road, formerly GA 336, was turned to county maintenance in 1982.  It is clear from this image that the county has not been able to maintain everything to the level of the state.  If a statewide farm-to-market system had taken over this road from the state, it would mean that no part of this former route would have fallen into disrepair.

Part 2 describes two primary approaches to a cooperative system with funding options described for each.  These include:

  • A statewide commission developed to consolidate maintenance of farm-to-market roads under one agency while keeping construction separate; this plan means that the state develops and finances operations of the farm-to-market network
  • A cooperative approach where counties and municipalities pay into the system on a per-mile basis with responsibility divided up into planning regions instead of centralized on a state level

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