Thursday, February 19, 2015

Rethinking Local Maintenance: Returning to a Larger Statewide Role is the Best Strategy

The facts and figures do not lie.  Money is tight, and it's too tight for most local governments to properly finance or maintain roads in much of the country.  Rural counties in particular are finding budgets strained due to weakened economies and population losses, yet they remain responsible for roads that they have never had adequate resources to maintain in the first place.  When money is tight, the first line of action is to reduce overhead by sharing that responsibility with another public agency whether it is the state, an adjacent county, a city or any combination of these.  Why is this not being done?

Transportation demands today are also not the same as they were 100 years ago.  While the states may feel overwhelmed, the use of an antiquated method of service delivery is reducing flexibility and accountability on how funding is spent, draining state coffers for needless overhead costs due to the duplication of services and leading to a dearth of inspectors to make sure that maintenance and road projects are in compliance with sound engineering practice.  Even with their many great financial difficulties, the highly centralized road systems in the Carolinas, Virginia, Delaware and West Virginia still work, and they do because overhead costs are minimalized meaning that the most basic of maintenance needs are almost always met even if larger needs have suffered from a maintenance backlog.  In fact, the only real reason that the road systems in the Carolinas and Virginia are not among the top rated road systems in the country has much to do with politics: the states that have them are unwilling to invest in adequate tax rates to maintain them and are funneling sparse resources away from maintenance to large road projects and other non-road items.  At present, only North Carolina's road system is adequately funded since legislative gridlock has resulted in a refusal to introduce new funding sources to pay for roads in the other states with centralized road systems mentioned.

In contrast, the only states with local systems that work are states with either a very strong investment from a state level and/or very large counties that help better consolidate funding.  In other words, road systems like those that exist in states like Massachusetts, New Jersey, Illinois, Georgia, Tennessee and Kansas need to go.  It's time to find a better way than simply relying on a patchwork of local governments to do what they're supposed to do.  County, township and municipal governments when they were laid out were not designed with road maintenance standards in consideration.  They were formed before the automobile and have absolutely no basis in modern highway planning.  Most were never capable of managing their own highway departments independently.  In the nearly 100 years since state highway systems were first created, it should be pretty obvious by now that local highway agencies are a costly, inefficient organization.  Most are extremely dependent on state-aid to survive, and they do not maintain road systems to adequate levels to justify keeping these organizations in place at the levels they are today.  Just the fact that MUTCD compliance alone is very poor across the country shows that dependence on local governments to do what the state or a larger region can do better is pure stubbornness and misplaced idealism about the real role of local agencies.

A lack of professionalism is epidemic in local agencies, especially rural and poorer agencies who lack the resources to hire professional staff and adequately finance higher standard work.  This sign exemplifies a disregard for standards due to the county being too small to adequately police without any efforts made to place supervision under an agency capable of hiring engineers whose professional training would hopefully reduce sloppy work like this.

An article in Chattanooga's Times-Free Press highlights the difficulties that counties have in both maintaining roads and obtaining adequate funding to do so.  Planners always look at counties with high populations as examples of efficiency in local government and a shining example of local control while completely ignoring that the majority of counties across the US have low populations with tremendous economic difficulties.  While they may provide a public service, they are incapable of providing a well-rounded consistent approach due to an imbalance between available funding and the human resources needed to steer a local operation.  About the only way such counties can support their own road systems is by receiving a high level of state-aid: sometimes way more than larger counties receive.  States may have such programs such as LTAP technical assistance, but they are by no means a guarantee that the local agency is going to follow those standards, especially when it means greatly increasing costs and hiring outside help to do so.  For instance, nowhere in this plan to adjust gas taxes in Georgia were there any plans to reduce the burden on counties or cities.  In all of these counties mentioned, the local governments have roads maintained well below state standards and lack any significant means of raising additional funding.


The last time any serious effort was made to relieve local governments of heavy road responsibility was during the early 1950's.  During that time, the state's role in transportation was a recent invention and states flush with gas tax revenues, less trustful of local governments and less fearful of liability felt they could operate a large portion of the local road network far more efficiently at far higher levels than the individual local governments could.  At the time, the states who adopted such systems were taking over roads in counties that often had very low populations, could not afford to maintain the many new paved roads and were unable to support the new mandated road standards.  Federal-aid funds were also plentiful meaning that these large state takeovers were bundled with a major road building program until funding for such projects was cut beginning in the 1970's.

Unfortunately, most other states did not adapt this strategy when the federal-aid secondary program was fully underway.  Those other states began building massive secondary state highway systems with no intentions of maintaining them.  They were instead dumped on the local governments as soon as the asphalt cooled for the local agencies to maintain without either the funding nor knowledge on how to do so.  Rural counties and small towns in many states were suddenly in charge of these new roads when they were previously in charge of mostly unpaved roads that required neither significant funding nor technical expertise to either build or maintain.  They were not prepared for this new responsibility.

Without substantial state-aid, federal-aid major collector roads such as this one are marginally maintained.  Local governments are typically not properly structured for this duty.

Unfortunately, the rush by the states to take over these new roads was not as strong as it should have been.  Most states across the country have strong local governments that resisted this move by the states, and state DOT's have consistently resisted any new responsibility choosing instead to continue to push more and more responsibility on the counties: both construction AND maintenance.  Traditional local control typically wins over central planning more often than not, because of fears of unfair redistribution of resources to favored parts of the state coupled with a belief that centralization will lead to much higher taxes than decentralization.  While history has proven that this is not necessarily true, there is something to be said about distributing resources across a larger state meaning a far too large state bureaucracy and imbalanced demands.  This is why the Regional Roads Plan was developed.

Local control is idealized in the USA as an extension of "states rights" in this misguided notion that the closer the government is to the people, the more responsive they will be thus the greater likelihood that they will do a better job.  This proved not to be true as many local governments have proven in many cases to be notorious for neglect and waste while even honest, well-meaning local agencies simply lack the know-how because they lacked the means to find out what they were not doing while the state was not willing to tell them due to "home rule" laws.  This is made worse by the states who have small counties or have subdivided county government further into townships, boroughs and villages.  How is a township with 1,200 people going to know how to develop a traffic control plan or cheaply provide any public services on their own?  A traffic control plan would require a budget of as much as $100,000 to engineer and correct.  Pothole maintenance?  Does each town need their own grader, mower, plows and facilities?  Hiring a contractor would also be more expensive than just having multiple towns sharing the cost for these duties.  Most likely they would not even recognize these problems enough to even address them.

State systems could have been much larger than they were, and most states who adopted these large-scale state road systems mostly took an approach of relieving counties and not municipalities considering that most municipal governments are also of very low population.  This wave of state takeovers also largely didn't happen across New England, the upper Midwest, Rocky Mountains States and especially the West Coast.  Townships were completely untouched in all but Pennsylvania and Maine where the states took over at least 1/3 of the highway system.  States like Colorado backtracked on large-scale state takeover strategies early on with Florida, Alabama and Maryland also scaling back enormously in the 1970's and 1980's.  Blind support of local control remains king.

In addition, state DOT's are becoming very stubborn in regards to maintaining roads.  Consider the typical approach of state DOT's today that have nothing to do with actually creating a uniform, efficient and well-maintained road system.  These include:

  • Devolution 
    • This involves transferring a set amount or proportion of state-owned road mileage to local ownership to both construct and maintain)
  • Arbitrary mileage caps 
    • State sets a randomly chosen maximum number of miles or lane miles that they are willing to maintain and will not exceed that number
    • Does not allow a proportional ratio increase: mileage is set and ratio slowly declines
  • City maintenance contracts for state roads
    • State DOT entrusts a city to handle most or all routine maintenance on state-owned roads thus defeating the purpose of state control if the standards of the city do not meet or exceed state standards
  • Hands-off state-aid safety contracts
    • Projects are often as-is upgrades that forbid state inspections to review and make changes for local jobs
    • Problems in contracts are never fixed because there is no qualified inspector or PTOE on a local level to review and make changes to plans
  • Other moves by the state such as:
    • Leaving the entire planning of farm-to-market routes to the local government thus destroying the ability to properly connect roads to facilitate traffic across the state
    • Removing all directional guide signs and trailblazers directing traffic onto locally-owned collector and arterial roads meant to reduce liability on the state for traffic leaving the state system even if the road is otherwise properly constructed, properly maintained and is the shortest/best route
    • Inflexibility on unusually strict state standards that have nothing to do with safety designed expressly to force local governments to take over maintenance of stretches of road either just to get a road project completed that the state is unwilling to fund or because the project has conflicting priorities for roadway design that is not 100% in compliance with established state policy

All of the items listed above are primarily just an excuse for state DOT's to try to get out of the road maintenance business.  State DOT's are not a private for-profit corporation.  They are supposed to be representing the public good and work to make the road system better even if it means regulating, reducing or even eliminating direct local control on much of the road system.  They are the experts that state authorities defer to when transportation policy is formed, and if their policy was for higher standards or a greater state role with a reasonable plan, it is likely that the state government would listen to them over any other voices.  The attitude is instead increasingly becoming a view that the state should be exempt from any liability and that the state "cannot handle any more roads" as if that arbitrary mileage cap they set is some outrageous sum that is overwhelming the entire operation.  If they told the state government that turning certain responsibilities to local governments directly would most certainly lead to unsafe conditions but that they could help local agencies develop a regional cooperative approach to road maintenance, the state government would probably listen.

It is not that the states do not have the money to maintain a larger state highway system.  What it is is that they simply want to build roads and not actually have to maintain them doling out that responsibility instead to contractors and local governments.  The state DOT's themselves are also working against a strategy that brings better road standards to a far larger percentage of roads.  A big part of the proposals on this site are a way to work around this negative, short-sighted attitude by state highway agencies.  The hope is that if the state wants out of the road business that a middle ground can be developed between the larger state and smaller local agencies that can bridge that gap so that road quality is not sacrificed in the name of right-sizing state government.


Today, the strategy should be more methodical.  Having states completely take over local road networks is no longer a practical or reliable strategy.  Nevertheless, complete control of roads on a municipal or county level should be reduced heavily.  Two approaches must be considered:

  • In the first approach, states should be taking over technical matters from local governments through the following ways:
    • An expansion of the state DOT in partnership with local agencies where local agencies jointly fund the state system expansion for maintenance while retaining control of construction funding
    • An expansion of the state DOT into a farm-to-market system with the state providing routine maintenance only, but limiting local government authority to both construct and maintain roads that are actually local in function
    • Swapping services with local agencies by providing technical services (traffic control planning, installation and limited maintenance) in turn for local agencies providing non-technical services (surface maintenance, mowing/brush cutting, winter maintenance)
  • The second approach has the state DOT not involved in local matters, but the state itself brokers a deal that encourages and allows local agencies across the state to form interagency maintenance cooperatives
    • This is combined on either a regional (based on regional planning districts) or statewide level (a statewide local roads cooperative)
    • May be combined for full road maintenance or traffic control
    • States should provide funding for engineering and operations as not only an incentive for local agencies to join a cooperative, but also as a means to combat local agency avoidance due to an operations fee that would be required otherwise

The federal-aid highway system in this country consists of 24% of the entire nation's highway system and roads of a functional classification higher than local comes to 30%, so an average of 19% is not excessive for state responsibility.  In fact, it is far too low when small cities and counties are otherwise responsible for 81% of the roads in the nation.  The chart below shows the federal-aid system mileage and ratios for the entire US.

The functional classifications of the US consists of five classifications, four of those which are eligible for federal-aid funding.  The federal-aid system consists of 24% of the nation's highway system with an additional 7% considered collector although not eligible for federal-aid.

The reality is that local governments have two primary functions: schools and roads.  Neither school nor road systems could even survive in such rural areas without constant state or federal aid, and that funding is never enough to bring either schools nor roads to acceptable standards except in newer states who did not adopt a 19th century model of local government.  Both schools and roads take a significant percentage of local funds, and neither roads nor schools benefit if the pie is carved up into small pieces when populations within those pieces of the pie are not very large.  If a state has 100 counties, and the average population is 20,000, the roads and schools in those counties below that average are going to have a difficult time meeting goals and standards.  Both are also grossly inefficient and substandard in areas with low populations or excessive government fragmentation such as in states who have both counties and townships.  If these local agencies were heavily sharing resources while maintaining primary local control it would make a big difference.  Is it such a bad idea to have regional school districts or regional road districts comprised of multiple cities, towns or counties?  Even some states or portions of states could adopt this strategy where the states are very small in land area such as in New England.  Our black and white state and local division is not an efficient use of resources.  That gray area should be full of cooperation to lower costs and improve standards.


It has often been suggested that boundaries should be erased and that townships should be eliminated, counties merged or cities dissolved, but how often does this really happen?  Lots of talk has been given to this issue, but talk is cheap.  People like boundaries whether or not that boundary provides any actual services.  If you say you live in the town of Holtsville in Holt Township in Fairfield County, does it really matter if Holtsville, Holt Township or even Fairfield County provide every public service on their own or any at all?  Does it even matter if they exist except on paper?  North Carolina and South Carolina are full of townships, but they have no active government and provide no services.  It doesn't mean they do not exist.

People like their boundaries, so providing public services across borders where it makes sense is the ideal approach.  Other than that, the highest likelihood of local government reform, in fact, is the dissolving of townships in states who have active county governments duplicating services with townships.  The discussion of merging counties and eliminating low population municipalities, however, never gains sufficient traction to truly provide any benefit.  It is, in fact, a weak argument when most people do not support a complete loss of local control or identity.

Ideally, townships should be mostly dissolved, the formation and/or annexation of new cities and towns highly restricted, smaller cities and towns merged with adjacent larger ones or dissolved and counties should be a fluid function that is designed to efficiently reduce costs for the state.  On the last item, counties as functional entities should have no less than 100,000 residents effectively forcing low population counties to merge to form very large counties.  At this point, none of those ideas are either realistic or popular.  Was it realistic when Fulton County, GA merged with two other counties?  Today, the entire county is divided into 15 cities with county-level municipal services effectively dissolved meaning that local government consolidation was ultimately worthless.  What is realistic, however, is reorganizing specific government functions so that the role of counties, cities and towns is greatly reduced as a means to cut costs, improve standards and greatly increase spending power.

While no strategy is guaranteed to create a smooth, perfect road system, the concepts presented will help to eliminate structural inefficiency and poor standards that are directly the result of roadway responsibility divided up among too many parties.  While none of the ideas above involve a complete state takeover of any road, the strategies are designed to make sure that no road is left behind.  The solutions are common sense strategies, because they right-size responsibility so that not just roads but certain roadway functions are given to the public agency who is best equipped to handle it.  The concepts above also summarize and group together several of the main ideas from more detailed proposals discussed in earlier posts.  The idea is to use existing resources at existing levels and reorganize them in a way that is more beneficial.  All of these ideas are designed with the intent into permanently altering the relationship of states and local governments so that the traditional and ineffective division of responsibilities between states and very small local units of government is replaced with a larger, more engineer-driven system that creates universally higher standards at the least cost.

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