Using county forces to maintain state highways is still a decent functional consolidation measure. It is basically the reverse of the method used in Virginia, and it makes sense under certain conditions. The usual benefits realized from putting county forces in charge of state road maintenance include cost efficiency through removal of duplication of services, access to funding sufficient to hire professional services, lower costs for both the state and local agency and typically improved standards on a local level. Such benefits, however, will still require a strong state-local relationship with significant training and materials available to the local government. It will also require substantial funding coupled with responsibility entrusted to a local level and some strings attached to state-aid funding. This is why this plan is updated with some new mechanisms.
It should also be noted that the county's ability to maintain a state-owned road has much to do with population and internal resources. State-aid payments are obviously highly beneficial to the local government, but these benefits are limited by state-owned road mileage and of course the resources on a county level. If state mileage is sparse or the unincorporated county population is low, the intended results on a county level are not likely to be realized. Thus, in the stronger counties, the counties should maintain state roads and in weaker counties, the state or a regional cooperative agency should maintain county roads. It should be noted that state DOT is typically a stronger partner in rural areas while counties are typically a stronger partner in urban areas.
Another thing to note is how much is the county actually responsible for? If the county responsibility and tax base has been trashed by municipal annexation, then contracting with a county for state road maintenance might not be beneficial. What good is a county with 700,000 people if only a small corner of the county with about 35,000 people has county government providing municipal services while the rest is incorporated? Unless the county is providing road maintenance services to most of the municipalities in that county, not much. The rule of thumb should be that any county that is given responsibility for state highways should have both an adequate tax base and large enough unincorporated population. Thus, the reason that instead of proposing full local maintenance responsibility of state routes or state responsibility for local roads and streets, a "two-way" plan was developed meaning one of two options is chosen based on local needs and capabilities.
The agencies most likely to benefit from local maintenance of state highways are counties and municipalities with higher populations and adequate state road mileage to adequately finance local work. Ideally, the unincorporated population should be large enough to support a county-level DOT structure meaning that at the very minimum the county should have an unincorporated population of at least 100,000 residents and/or a total population of the same if the municipalities and counties share that responsibility. In states where the counties are in charge of only farm-to-market roads only such as New Jersey (because townships maintain local streets), the same holds true. The two-way plan means that local agencies who do not want or cannot handle state highway responsibility are instead permitted to contract road maintenance with either the state DOT, a rural regional cooperative agency or statewide cooperative agency. In fact, this plan relates to other plans in a number of ways. The primary combinations include:
- Individual counties/cities contracted to maintain state roads (based on population threshold)
- State DOT contracted to maintain county roads and municipal streets (in lower population counties/municipalities)
- Rural statewide cooperative contracted to maintain both state roads and county roads/municipal streets (rural and low population counties/municipalities only)
- Rural regional cooperative contracted to maintain both state roads and county roads/municipal streets (same as above, but limited to a certain region)
- A split of rural regional cooperatives and state DOT maintenance
- In this instances, regional cooperatives only exist in certain areas and functionally act as a large population county
- In other rural parts of the state where a regional cooperative does not exist, the state DOT handles that responsibility directly
The important thing to note here is that counties and cities do NOT have an option to opt out of this plan. This is a required arrangement where a local government chooses one of two categories. They cannot operate independent of the state DOT. They either are providing services on behalf of the state DOT or either the state DOT or regional cooperative provides services on their behalf. These are the choices available to every local government. They include:
- Expand county operations to include maintenance of state-owned roads complete with required per-mile payments from the state DOT
- Contracting to use state forces on local roads/streets if no cooperative system exists (local government pays the state DOT an operations fee to do so)
- Contracting road maintenance to regional cooperative (who will also be required to maintain state roads)
- Contracting road maintenance to statewide cooperative (who will also be required to maintain state roads)
At this point, the situation may seem a little confusing, but the goal is to have all road maintenance and engineering consolidated where the state DOT and local governments are never operating separately and duplicating services. To put it simply, the historical split of state and local agency is eliminated in favor of a cooperative arrangement where the option is not whether to contract or not but who to contract with and how that arrangement should be structured.
Local maintenance is not a guarantee of good practices on a local level. Because of this, local authority would have to be reduced to make these arrangements work effectively. Population thresholds should also be adequate so that the local agency is well-funded and is able to meet state standards without a special infusion of state-aid funding upsetting the balance of funding available to other local agencies. In Virginia, all cities and many towns maintain state-owned surface roads. Until recently this was not always a positive arrangement since many cities and towns did a terrible job with road maintenance, and many still do not maintain state-owned roads correctly. Many smaller cities and towns also do not have proper population thresholds to adequately fund or maintain roads thus they are taking advantage of state payments without producing results that sufficiently match state efforts. This is why some ground rules are needed for any local agency to be permitted to maintain a state highway:
- Local road maintenance on state-owned roads must meet state standards in order to receive state funding. This means that all traffic signs, pavement markings, traffic signals and any other items must meet state standards and MUTCD standards regardless of cost.
- The state DOT must pay a rate-per-mile equivalent to what it would cost the state to maintain their own roads to the local partner agency.
- Local agencies (primarily county agencies) will lose funding and lose control of road maintenance operations to the state if they cannot or will not follow those standards
- The minimum unincorporated county population threshold for local maintenance of state routes is 100,000 residents. Counties of lower population may not do so unless they form cooperatives with adjacent municipalities or counties that are high enough to reach adequate population threshold. However, cooperatives should preferably be designed to at least cover a federal planning region.
- County maintenance of state routes should be made a requirement for local control. Counties that are unable to maintain state roads should be required to transfer all routine road maintenance of both state-owned and county-owned roads to the state DOT, regional cooperative agency or rural statewide cooperative agency. In other words, the system must be consolidated one way or another.
- This rule should also apply to cities and towns.
- Cities, towns and townships of inadequate population should be required at the very least to consolidate traffic control with the agency responsible for state and county roads in the county.
- Regional cooperatives will typically include the transfer of entire routine road maintenance in cities and towns to the cooperative.
- If the city or town is less than 25,000 residents, the agency responsible for state and county roads in that county should have engineering supervisional authority
- A county and/or municipal agency must have both a registered civil engineer on staff and a traffic operations unit headed by a PTOE in order to qualify for local maintenance of state routes
- Guide signs and route markers on locally-maintained state routes should be furnished by the state DOT. These should also be furnished by the state along locally-owned roads to maintain system coordination and route continuity.
- Payments to local agencies should be uniformly based on either funding per mile or a maximum funding ratio based on population and road mileage available to the local agency where they will not be reimbursed for work beyond a certain amount
The purpose of county roads and municipal streets should not be seen as simply a means to split responsibility between a state and local agency, because the presence of a local agency maintaining roads should mean that the local government can demonstrate that it has the population and resources to do what the state is able to do equivocally or better. In other words, state responsibility for all roads within a certain jurisdiction is entrusted instead of devolved to a local level. This is a completely different view from the "ownership" structure where local agencies are free agents working independently of the state while still being dependent on state-aid payments. This is why ideally all counties and all municipalities who maintain their own road networks should also be maintaining state highways that pass through them as well. In fact, that should be a requirement as part of a local agency maintaining their own roads. Essentially any local agency that is able to maintain their own roads should also be able to maintain state-owned roads because they have the resources to do so. If they do not have the resources to do this, then clearly they also do not have the resources to maintain their own local road networks. The inability of a local agency to maintain state-owned roads to state levels exposes the fundamental deficiencies that affect local agencies.
Most counties typically have at least some state-owned road mileage within their borders, but this is a different case in regards to municipalities. It is not uncommon for a city or town to not have a single state-owned road within their boundaries. Considering the requirement that all local agencies that maintain their own roads must also contract with the state, are these agencies exempt? Perhaps they could be, but these agencies should then be subject to the population thresholds requirements meaning they will be expected to contract routine maintenance with the public agency responsible for county and state roads. This means the city, township or municipality would become captive to whoever is responsible for maintaining county roads. This includes:
- The state DOT
- County government
- Regional/Statewide Cooperative
The goal is that no local agency should be maintaining their own roads if they cannot demonstrate that they are able to fully comply with state and federal standards. Captive municipalities that fall across multiple counties would fall under responsibility of the agency (state or county) that handles the county where the municipality has the highest population. This means if Byrnesville has 500 people in Gray County and 1,500 in Frost County, then Byrnesville will be contracted with the agency responsible for Frost County.
- Licensed professional civil engineer: $90,000
- Licensed professional traffic operations engineer (PTOE): $80,000
- Traffic signs and pavement markings: $25,000
- Equipment purchases and maintenance: $100,000
- Labor: $80,000
- Other Expenses: $45,000 (includes fuel, winter maintenance, pothole patching, etc.)
Another pitfall of this plan is that the states cannot adopt this plan halfheartedly. If they lack the political will to take over county and/or municipal roads as a penalty for poor maintenance practices, regional cooperatives are not pursued in cases the state DOT does not want local involvement or if they allow local governments to maintain state and/or local roads below required standards then it is not a good plan. Quality controls are necessary to make this plan work or it will simply be abused with negligible improvements in road quality. In all, this is the only plan that entrusts local governments to maintain roads given better tools to work with, so it needs to be designed in such a way to assure that uniformity and quality are part of the system.
Lastly, application of this plan statewide will be difficult since many local agencies will be unable to or disinterested in working with the state on anything. Many states do not have good working relationships between state and local agencies making full scale implementation difficult. If a top down approach is employed, then it will require every county to maintain state highways thus defeating the purpose of the checks and balances in this plan as well as assuming that every county is actually financially and structurally capable of this added responsibility.
The primary example of where this concept can be extended is in Virginia. Several counties across the state have shown interest in maintaining their own roads, and cities across the state are already required to maintain state-owned roads. Since that is the case, these counties that want to go on their own should not require a separation from the already efficient state highway system. Instead, VDOT should simply transfer authority for all roads that they currently maintain (both primary and secondary) to the county. This means that counties like Fairfax or Chesterfield, all with very high populations, could gain control of their roads only with the condition that the entire operation falls into their hands including the state-owned primary routes. Likewise, the two existing counties in the state who maintain their own road networks would be required to take over state-owned primary route maintenance with new requirements that they meet state standards.