Thursday, February 26, 2015

Two-Way Consolidated Road Maintenance Plan

Across the country, local forces maintaining state-owned roads is used sporadically.  Typically these agreements are with cities and towns, but much more rarely are county forces used for this purpose.  However, two states employ county forces heavily in maintenance of state-owned roads: Wisconsin and Michigan.  In Wisconsin, counties are required to maintain all state-owned roads while in Michigan 3/4 of the counties in the state use their own forces to maintain state-owned roads.  However, it should be also noted in these states that county road responsibility is far more limited than in other states like those in the West and South where townships do not own the lowest level roadways.  This means that using county agencies to maintain state-owned roads in these other states who lack townships to handle the most local streets is sporadic with Florida being one of the few places it is ever used.

Wisconsin is the only state to have a requirement that county forces must maintain all state-owned roads.  This equips counties to work on levels close to the state.  This intersection of County Roads Y & KP in Roxbury show that engineering standards are better when county agencies work closely with the state and are better equipped and funded.  While the roads are not completely to the levels of state-owned secondary roads, they are better maintained than similar separate county road systems in other states.  (Image from Google Street View, 2013)

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)
Secondary combinations involve regional cooperatives meaning that if a county is too small to provide state-maintenance services, the state DOT can pass on responsibility to a rural statewide cooperative or rural regional cooperative (based on federal planning regions):
  • 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:

  1. Expand county operations to include maintenance of state-owned roads complete with required per-mile payments from the state DOT
  2. 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)
  3. Contracting road maintenance to regional cooperative (who will also be required to maintain state roads)
  4. 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.


The general view of county agencies is that they need an unincorporated population threshold that is at least 100,000 to maintain their own roads.  Cities and towns, however, need to have a population that is lower due to a stronger tax base and a smaller geographical area.  However, if the local agency is maintaining state roads that means that they are receiving state funding based on state system mileage.  In other words, other factors are present such as the number of miles that they maintain and how well equipped they are after those payments are made.  This also means that the needed population threshold may drop significantly thus a county with 25,000 residents with a high number of state-owned roads would stand to benefit far more greatly than the same with far less.  This means a county with 25,000 residents could potentially finance road maintenance as well as a county working separately from the state with 100,000 residents.  For instance, a county with 25,000 residents might have 35 miles of state roads within their jurisdiction.  If the state pays $12,000 per mile then that county receives $420,000 per year.  Let's look at some of what that $420,000 could cover:
  • 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.)
This means that this county that otherwise would not have been able to afford to do so otherwise now has a budget for all of these additional items.  It is granted that they would have to include local costs on state-owned roads, but they would have the ability to do far more with less.  Equipment is being used for both road systems, two full-time employees can be hired at $40,000/year, safety improvements can be better financed and two traffic engineers with one specializing in traffic control that they previously could not afford can help better manage the road system.  Obviously an initial merging of responsibility might require an excess of labor costs due to attrition, but this shows a fundamental outcome for an otherwise small rural county.  However, if those engineers were shared among, for instance, three counties in a regional cooperative agreement the sum of available funding would go up for the other bullets below.  It would obviously make more sense for three counties with a total population of over 100,000 to share that responsibility: especially if it freed the counties from having to contract with the state DOT.

Looking at these numbers, counties who are eligible to retain local control would be far higher than similar counties working independent of the state when they are also required to maintain state highways.  This means that the state would have far fewer captive agencies.  With the proper conditions met and regional cooperatives formed in lower population areas, it is fully expected that between 40 and 85% of counties in every state would be able to adequately maintain state highways thus retaining at least some degree of local control of roads.  The remaining counties would be required to combine forces with other jurisdictions or use state forces.  The population threshold requirement is actually more about forcing cooperative arrangements than it is actually forcing the state DOT to take over rural road maintenance.


State DOT's would have the authority to supervise local functions along state-owned roads thus local agencies would be properly trained in use of equipment and materials.  With the state also providing adequate equipment, it would also be possible for local governments to do things they were not able to afford to do previously.  In all, this would greatly strengthen the capacity of local agencies.  


Wisconsin DOT noted the fundamental flaws of using county forces to maintain state roads.  One of those is that most counties lacked the resources to own and maintain expensive or sparsely used equipment.  This is where either local agencies set up their own regional equipment centers or the state DOT regions set up a special equipment operations center.  In this, the local governments create a list of equipment that they do not need on a regular basis or cannot afford on their own.  In the former, multiple local agencies create a special facility where the equipment is store paying for it collectively based on population and using it on an appointment basis.  In the latter, the state purchases this equipment for each region and loans or leases it to the local agencies for a set time period.  This means that equipment purchases are shared across multiple jurisdictions.  

Here are some examples.  The former plan might have five counties sharing a road grader.  The road grader costs $150,000.  If one county has 20% of the population, then the county's share of the cost for purchasing the road grader is $30,000.  The trade-off is that they must share it with the five other counties.  In the latter plan, DOT District 2 has a list of about 10 items that contracted counties cannot afford on their own.  The state (or a regional cooperative) then sets up a special barn that houses these equipment and arranges times when they are allowed to use it leasing it on a daily rate to the local agency to help cover costs of equipment maintenance.  Either way, putting some equipment on a regional level will help offset costs for local agencies in charge of maintaining state roads.  


Local agencies are not always trustworthy when it comes to following proper protocols when it comes to road construction and maintenance.  A lack of funding is not always the issue.  Sometimes a local agency misuses state-aid funds and thus allows maintenance to suffer even if population and funding is otherwise adequate.  Consider the City of Baltimore and their poor maintenance of interstate highways running through the city.  This is why some controls are needed in this plan.  First is the requirement that a local agency must meet and exceed state and federal standards to be eligible.  This means that if the local agency falls out of compliance or is not doing a good job, they will lose authority to maintain not only state-owned roads but also their own roads.  As a result, the local maintenance of state highways exists in conjunction with captive agencies who must contract their road maintenance to the state within the same state.  It needs to be all or nothing: the local or regional agency works for the state and does a good job or the state DOT assumes management.  This means that local municipalities who are captive to counties are subject to this as well.  Either way the duplication of services does not exist.  There is no division of responsibility, but there is a division of ownership.  Employees would not risk losing their job and costly facilities would not need to be built if road maintenance changed hands: they would just have a different boss if the situation changes.

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.


States across the country are pushing for increased local control, but local agencies need greater funding and better oversight to do so.  The best way to achieve this is by dissolving state maintenance divisions into local responsibility for surface state roads where it makes sense, but where it does not the state itself or a regional agency acting on behalf of the state does this on behalf of both the state DOT and the county.  This creates not only cost savings on a state level, but also provides much greater funding on a local level to do far more than they were able to do independent of the state.  However, in doing so a risk is created in that roadway standards either do not improve on a local level or decline on a state level if arrangements do not take into account that local control has weaknesses that must be properly addressed.  The goal of any such agreement is to create what can be achieved with state maintenance of local roads, but in reverse by using local forces instead.  If that goal cannot be achieved, then such agreements between local agencies should not be pursued.  

Some local agencies would not be helped by the creation of state maintenance agreements primarily due to the absence of any state-maintained roads within their jurisdiction such as in cities and towns.  The rules for these agencies must be different in that they must still comply with the same standards thus requiring that low population cities and towns become captive for road maintenance to whomever is in charge of county roads.  The agency in charge of routine maintenance for the city or town equates to which agency is in charge of county roads.

For agencies that do participate, quality control measures must be an integral part of this system.  All counties contracted with state forces must meet state and federal standards, must have two engineers: a county engineer and a PTOE.  All local agencies must also maintain surface state roads in order to retain the authority to maintain their own county road network.  Thus, consolidation becomes a requirement by law: either the counties maintain state-owned roads or they must contract with another larger agency.  Likewise, the state has a responsibility to make sure that all local agencies are consistently paid a fair and equitable amount for state level work.  All local agencies would in effect be reimbursed on an average cost-per-mile that is otherwise available for state highways.  This means if the state requires $10,000 per mile then instead the county, city or town is also paid $10,000 per mile. 

This plan also includes the discussion of some regional organization for the purpose of equipment purchases for the use among multiple agencies.  Since local agencies are still limited by cost and frequency of need, either multiple counties or the state need to manage expensive or sparsely used equipment so that it is available for use by all local jurisdictions regardless of size.  

In all, this plan is designed to help preserve local control while making it conditional on capabilities.  This achieves the joint goals of helping states to increase local control while subsequently improving accountability and maintenance levels on a local level.  However, it should also be noted that state highway mileage is a significant factor.  If the state ratios are too low then local agencies are less likely to benefit from state-aid and thus roadway conditions may not improve as much.  This is why this is not a one-size-fits-all approach to road maintenance.  The goal of this plan is to allow mostly higher population counties and municipalities to achieve better road standards through better funding and better economies of scale while helping to reduce costs on a state level.  Otherwise, the state becomes the caretaker of roads for other local agencies who are not yet able to meet those goals.

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