The purpose of this plan is to target specifically the weakest area in local road maintenance. It is clear looking at the various county and municipal road systems in many states both rural and urban that the problems these agencies face have nothing to do with the local economy as much as they have to do with poor economies of scale. Funds cannot be leveraged enough on a local level in most of these political subdivisions to provide either proper supervision nor frequent enough maintenance, and in the case of either counties or townships the ability to grow through expansion of territory is impossible. While cities may grow either way, most cities have very small populations, few roads and small geographic areas making them unsuitable stewards of traffic control operations. While local road funding is ample to keep roads smooth and bridges in good repair, the funding provided by the state or local sources to hire engineers, develop sign shops and purchase costly equipment to install/maintain signs and other traffic safety devices typically is not. The former is usually done on a contract basis usually through grants, but this is a day-to-day operation with annual outputs often of as little as $5,000 per year. That is just enough to install or replace a few street name and stop signs. The irony is that an amount that little may be acceptable if that cost is shared among many other jurisdictions while a jointly-funded qualified engineer is able to lay out the true cost needed to each partner agency.
The first option involves the expansion of the state DOT for the purpose of local traffic control, but with NO additional costs incurred by the state DOT itself. In essense, the state DOT develops an internal cooperative for the purpose of providing local governments the option of contracting with the state for traffic control if they are willing to pay an operations fee and provide their own funding for any labor or materials used by the state on local roads. Doing it this way, the state already has all of the infrastructure in place to expand their services, but any needed expansion of services or employees needed to administer this work on behalf of local agencies must be funded by the combined deposits from the operations fee.
Picture that a state has 100 counties and 300 cities and that 25 counties and 100 cities choose to participate. The state decides the operations fee should be based on population ratio and sets a budget for the operations fee. Let's say they budget $850,000 for the operations fee based on participation out of a population of participating agencies of 1.25 million (meaning $0.68 for every person). This means that a county with an unincorporated population of 25,000 residents will be expected to pay a $17,000 operations fee (far less than the cost of hiring a consultant or county engineer) coupled with whatever they wish to contribute to finance traffic control. Let's say the county has budgeted $50,000 for traffic control in a given year (signs, striping and guardrails). They may budget $5,000 the next year, but they can stay on as long as they pay the fee. Thus, the total for the county in question is $67,000 for the first year and $22,000 the following year. It should be noted that the operations fee may be too high for just traffic control alone in rural counties, so the state may expand the option for rural counties to be provided all engineering services out of that operations fee thus allowing the entire county road maintenance operation to be overseen by the state DOT. While this would not transfer ownership to the state, it would transfer supervision of all routine maintenance to the state.
What would agencies partnered with the state DOT receive? They would receive:
- State DOT engineering and oversight of traffic control devices and safety improvements on local roads (roads not maintained by the state) is given partially or exclusively to the state traffic operations agency
- The safety improvements that fall under state funding and supervision include the following items:
- traffic control devices (signs, delineators)
- traffic signals
- pavement markings (road striping, rumble strips, raised pavement markers)
- bridge rail repair
- traffic signals/street lights and
- guardrails (installation and repair).
- if the county or municipality has the needed equipment, they may do this work themselves, but the state agency will be required to have the equipment and will generally provide this service for any local agency that lacks the equipment to do so
- a local agency doing this on behalf of the state will be reimbursed the cost difference
- Cass County has a population of 25,000
- Cass County has two municipalities with a population of 2,000 in the first and 500 in the second (Hankston and Porterdale) meaning unincorporated population is 22,500.
- Cass County is in Sample State with a population of 5 million
- 45 of the states 75 counties have contracted with the state DOT with a total combined population of about 1.7 million
- The state has determined that the operations fee should be $0.50 per person (based on census population)
- The total operations fee budget is then $850,000
- Cass County's population ratio of the participating agencies is 1.3%
- Thus, Cass County's portion of the operations fee will be $11,250
- The county typically budgets only $10,000 per year on traffic control, so it is determined that the county should just contract their entire engineering responsibility to the state effectively putting routine maintenance of county roads under state supervision.
- This means that Cass County has retained ownership of roads and is in charge of funding, but has entrusted a portion of the roads budget to the state DOT in conjunction with the operations fee paid annually.
- Both Hankston and Porterdale participate. Their operations fees are $1,000 and $250, respectively
- In a single year, the cost savings from the partnership allowed Cass County to afford to install or replace 200 traffic signs, repair two miles of guardrails, and restripe three roads due to the county's low population. Previously the county was only able to afford to do about 1/4 of that on the same budget.
Drawbacks to Option 1
The main problems with using the state DOT directly has to do with the state's lack of willingness to finance this program, liability that comes with it and the state placing lower priority on roadways off of the state highway system. While it will still be far better than the current system, participation is voluntary and the state DOT would be free to pull back on this program at any time even though they would not be responsible for funding any part of the operation. It would have to be clearly written in state law that any local agency willing to partner with the state could not be turned down and that the program was made permanent by state law. Nonetheless, a court decision could quickly revert this method back to status quo. With states wanting to reduce their direct responsibility, this is why Option 2 was added to the original plan.
The second option differs from the first option in that authority for traffic control is NOT handed to the state DOT, but instead is entrusted within a brand new statewide organization whose sole duty is to supervise and provide traffic control and traffic safety improvements on roads otherwise owned and maintained by local governments. Funding comes from sources independent of the state DOT and the regional authority works exclusively for local governments providing traffic control on behalf of all of the counties and municipalities. In this option, the cooperative may be created either by the state legislature or by a collective agreement by more than half of counties and cities across the state in what is equivalent to a statewide special assessment district. If created by the state legislature it is a state agency. If created as a local agency cooperative it is a statewide agency, but not a state agency. Either way, the cooperative is not part of the state DOT although it has some powers equivalent to a state DOT. It could perceivable begin as a regional traffic control pact that expands to cover most or all of a single state. It could also evolve into a statewide local roads authority that expands its operations to provide full road maintenance to any counties or municipalities who feel that they are better suited transferring the entire operation to a larger agency.
The statewide regional traffic control cooperative will either be divided into divisions that match the state DOT divisions so that they can work in tandem or they will be divided into districts according to the rules in the Regional Roads Plan. While the state DOT will not control the divisions, they will have the right to audit divisions who they feel are not meeting stated goals, and they will require that all regions follow applicable state standards until if or when proper oversight can be established otherwise (meaning an elected position or oversight board made of local elected officials). They will also be able to petition the legislature or courts to strip funding or reorganize a division if the state finds negligence and the authority fails to correct problem areas within a set time after DOT notice of each violation. What constitutes negligence includes:
- Materials used by the division are not substantially in compliance with state standards
- Non-approved vendors are used in lieu of state-approved vendors
- In-house signs are not compliant with MUTCD standards
- Warning and regulatory signs should be purchased from state-approved private vendors
- Engineering studies were not conducted prior to installation of traffic control devices placed by authority (as-is replacement)
- Sign plans include substantial errors that were neither recognized nor corrected in a timely manner
- Traffic control devices are in disrepair and not being maintained/replaced
- Required state-specific devices have not been installed such as route markers, guide signs or special regulatory signs
- State has reasonable suspicion that funding is being misused
The list described is, of course, what is NOT being done right now with counties, cities and towns in most states. Option 2 is a horizontal consolidation tactic that pools resources together from many local agencies. Oversight will have to be done through a joint authority with representatives from each county. If necessary, it may need an elected position. Option 1, on the other hand, basically uses local funds to make an existing agency larger without adding any costs to the existing agency. Either way, roadways remain under ownership of local governments.
- Street name signs: all street name signs must be financed by the local government even if they are furnished and installed by the division
- Speed limit and other regulatory signs: the cooperative will not be authorized to set speed limits or any other roadway regulation without consent or approval of local elected authorities. However, the local agency will use the cooperative to install and maintain all regulatory signs. All signs must also comply with standards of the cooperative. The cooperative may also conduct traffic studies and make recommendations for speed limit or other regulatory changes.
- Other signs and markings: Local authorities may add traffic control devices or safety improvements to roads under division authority, but they must comply with cooperative/state standards. The local agency will be liable for any changes that do not comply with traffic studies or did not receive division approval, and any changes made on behalf of the local government that went against prior decisions of the authority should be clearly written so that local agencies will not be immune from any consequences of shoddy devices or inversely the cooperative agency will not be responsible for prior defects.
Each division will be set up like a state's traffic operations division. They will be supervised by at least one registered P.E. who is also a PTOE and will have direct authority for all traffic control on roads assigned to them. Preferably one PTOE should be hired for every 250,000 residents. Their duties include:
- Traffic studies and amendments/changes to prior traffic studies on all local roads and streets under their authority
- Review of traffic control plans for any new construction
- Modifications or additions to existing traffic control devices in locations where conditions change or are inadequate
- Creation and maintenance of records and data regarding traffic control devices and safety improvements to improve speed and efficiency in maintenance
- Maintaining a sign shop and equipment to be used in each division
- Sign shop should include production of guide signs, route markers and special signs while commonly used standard MUTCD warning and regulatory signs should be purchased in bulk from state-approved private vendors
- Financing and furnishing:
- the installation and maintenance of traffic control devices (signs, delineators)
- traffic signals and street lights
- pavement markings (road striping, rumble strips, raised pavement markers)
- bridge rail repair
- traffic signals and
- guardrails (installation and repair).
- Complying with state DOT and federal standards in all traffic studies, in all labor and for all materials installed on local roads under their authority
- Use of own forces, private contractors or county agencies to install/maintain work completed under direct authority of the regional traffic operations office
- Counties and cities may rely on the regional authority entirely to handle traffic control and safety improvements although street name signs must be funded by local authorities
- In addition, the regional traffic control cooperative will be required to begin drafting a state MUTCD supplement including variations, state-specific standards, state-specific signs and standard drawings to better streamline the road system if the state has otherwise directly adopted the MUTCD [to be completed within 5 years of the system debut]
The important aspect of option 2 is that funding cannot and should not be connected with state DOT funding in any way. Since local agencies typically budget too little for traffic control, one permanent funding solution is to create a small ad valorem tax addition or statewide sales tax addendum. The advantage of this is threefold:
- The state DOT has zero liability or financial burden for local traffic control
- Traffic control is still consolidated to a regional level
- The separate authority has its own budget therefore reducing the risk of funding being stripped away for other purposes or cooperatives collapsing due to unwillingness of local agencies to pay their portion of the operations fee
The creation of an independent agency will also reduce the likelihood of the program being cut in the future. In addition, the greater autonomy will create the potential that the divisions may do a better and more thorough job than the state in some cases since they will have a more focused objective. Whatever the fee is, the fee should be at minimum $0.50 per resident/motorist to cover the operations fee and at maximum $2.50 per resident/motorist to cover the majority of costs leaving local agencies to shoulder little to no part of the cost. The operations fee can also result in near 100% participation of local agencies since costs to them directly would be minimum.
Some new guidelines complete with Sample State examples include:
- Sample state has 4.7 million licensed motorists, and each motorist is charged an additional $2 per year for tag renewal. That fee goes straight to the traffic control cooperative.
- Sample state has 100,000 miles of roads with 10% under state control and 90% local; the fee covers that 90% of roadways
- This means that $9.4 million is used to cover 90,000 miles of local roadways
- 15% is budgeted for operations and the remaining 85% is distributed to each county and municipality based on population ratio
- $1.41 million for operations and $7.99 million for materials and labor
- This means that local agencies will still need to seed fund in certain cases traffic control and/or offset labor costs by providing labor if they have the equipment
- With this ratio, consider a county with an unincorporated population of 25,000 out of a state population of 8 million
- This county will receive $24,688 in materials/labor
- A county with four times the unincorporated population would receive $98,750
- This means at NO cost to the local agency, all local agencies as part of the cooperative would have operations covered by a qualified staff capable of handling local traffic control and receive in payments as much as four times what they could typically budget in a year on their own
- At just $0.30 per year, motorists could be charged just the operations fee meaning that local agencies could pay in on their own without being charged the operations fee; a lot less than it would take for local agencies to budget the operations fee
- A statewide 10th cent sales tax addendum
- An extra $1 fee added to property taxes annually levied by the local governments with the sum of all receipts paid directly to the regional traffic operations authority
- Federal-aid HRRRP safety funds (added to the existing statewide receipts)
Many elements of this plan may be privatized. The state DOT or regional traffic control authority could contract engineering to a private firm to plan and oversee any of this work to reduce liability on the state or to assist during the transition. All materials could be exclusively purchased from private vendors with all warning and regulatory signs preferably purchased through private vendors while guide and route signs are made by state forces. The state or regional traffic control authority could also use a private contractor to annually install, replace and correct all safety improvements with available funds along local roads in lieu of using state or county employees.
If a state is unwilling to raise the costs to cover this program for an entire local road system, that doesn't mean that they should not offer it at all. As was shown above with Sample State, in the last bullet in the guidelines above the state only took on 30,000 miles or 43% of the local roads for the purpose of statewide traffic control leaving 40,000 miles to the local agencies. The overall state or partially state responsibility would come to 40,000 miles meaning that 40% of Sample State's road system would fall under some form of state supervision for traffic control. Generally this service is needed the most on connecting roads that typically have higher speeds and/or traffic meaning that this program should at least fill in the gap to cover connecting highways that are not otherwise state controlled.
By this definition, a state should expand the responsibility of engineering and maintaining traffic operations work to cover at least 40% of the road system regardless of level of state responsibility otherwise. This sliding cap would basically allow for all higher functional classification roads and a few other local connecting roads to receive state-aid for traffic control leaving that work on remaining local roads local responsibility. It would also mean that if the state reduced or increased its roadway ownership that the ratio of responsibility for the state for traffic control would remain the same.
The advantages of this approach are that the state could directly administer the program far more effectively allowing local agencies to maintain the remaining roads to their own standards while concentrating funding on the roads that need this extra state aid the most. While it doesn't entirely eliminate the problem, it does at least improve both urban and rural road conditions on the most hazardous roads with the longest distances and highest speeds. It will also be easier for the state to manage this responsibility under a set mileage limit while allowing local governments to concentrate available safety funding for the most local roads allowing for better maintenance of safety devices along those roads.
The greater the ratio of state maintenance of local traffic control, the less likely the road is going to be a highly traveled road. At the lowest 50% of roads, much of these include unpaved roads, subdivision streets, dead-end roads and low speed roads with light traffic. However, that does not mean that hazardous conditions do not exist on those roads. If a proportional cap is chosen, any rural local government should be permitted to contract for remaining traffic control at the rate set by the state for remaining roads at their own expense per Option 1 above. Even if that is not permitted, however, the expansion of centralized authority for traffic control over most paved connecting roads will largely eliminate the problem with unsafe local roadways.
In order to assure that uniformity is obtained, some additional rules are needed. The new rules here apply either way, but these primarily relate to the state DOT option (option 1). For one, counties with low populations should not be expected to do any traffic control work and municipalities discouraged from directly maintaining any traffic control at all. In general, unincorporated parts of counties under 100,000 residents should use state or regional traffic control forces to do this work. Those that exceed that population or do the work for the state should be subject to the following rules:
- State-funded signs may not be made in-house by a county or municipal agency.
- Guide, route and special signs must be made by either the state DOT, roadway contractors or in the case of a regional traffic control cooperative the agency itself
- Locally-funded signs must comply with the state and federal MUTCD and must be purchased only from state-approved vendors
- Non-compliant or incorrectly engineered devices on local roadways must be removed within 6 months of identification with the correction plan detailed by the state DOT.
- In-house signs made by local agencies may not be used for other signs unless equipment, purchased materials, template drawing files and finished signs are approved by state engineers.
- Guide signs (except D3 street name signs), special signs and route markers should only be made by state forces, the regional traffic control cooperative or qualified vendors.
- If county route signs are used, signed county routes funded by the state should be limited to no more than 35% of the state's road system and uniformly applied statewide on a statewide special system that includes signing county highways along municipal streets.
- This system should be planned in cooperation with the state DOT and be uniform statewide
- This system should include link node routes with routes that keep numbers across county lines and are posted within boundaries of municipalities
It is hoped that by regionalizing this responsibility to the state or regional level that guide signs will be able to be properly designed, properly maintained and planned for more locations. Guide signs realistically should be applied wherever needed and posted along any roadway classified as collector or higher. The MUTCD even supports the practice of heavily signing guide signs. In Section 2A.04 it reads "If used, route signs and directional guide signs should be used frequently because their
use promotes efficient operations by keeping road users informed of their location." Obviously street name signs are used heavily, but this also includes the posting of county route markers on important county routes, trailblazer assemblies ("TO" route), directional and distance guide signs and junction route assemblies: none of which are ever used frequently enough on collector and arterial roads maintained by local agencies. The image below shows the tremendous problems with local control of guide signs, however, and why that responsibility should transfer to either the state DOT or regional traffic control cooperative per the methods described in Option 1 or Option 2:
While programs may be more limited in states with a higher level of state control, the purpose is to remove the huge differences and variations in standards between roads maintained by local agencies and state-owned roads without requiring any large restructuring or jurisdictional change. In all, most local agencies are reliable in providing road maintenance activities with exception to traffic control and safety improvements. Today, we have the technology and resources to efficiently manage and maintain traffic control devices far more cheaply and frequently than in the past. This is why relying on an inefficient local government to do the job right when they have proven that they are almost universally incapable of doing so is a bad policy that needs to stop now.
The regional traffic operations authorities were added as an option as a means to centralize authority to the state level while not involving the DOT itself. That is because the DOT plan does put additional strain on internal state resources by bloating the organization further even if it does help reduce costs and increase output on on a local level. In addition, when corrections are made to adequate levels, the overall funding requirement may be able to be reduced as the initial construction phase transitions to routine maintenance. Local agencies may be able to fund this collectively through an agreed on operations fee coupled with supplying their own funds, but realistically a dedicated statewide funding source is the best way to administer this program. This can be done through a small, but specific ad valorem or sales tax fee that would diminish or eliminate the local tax burden.
Overall, this plan is not an unnecessary or excessive expense. A dearth of well-maintained and designed safety improvements is deadly, especially when unsafe conditions are met by inexperienced, elderly or unfamiliar drivers. Enough hazards on the roads are present with wildlife, weather, rough roads, bad drivers and worsening traffic conditions. Should the public also have to face dark roadways with shoddy traffic safety devices? This is why consolidating this responsibility into an organization well-suited to handle it will correct this problem without having to eliminate local control.