Friday, March 6, 2015

Mileage Caps vs. Proportional Ratio Caps

Caps are often a popular method to manage things that seem to be growing out of control.  While they seem logical, it is important to think about a particular cap that this country has set that has not worked.  That cap is on the number of members in the House of Representatives.  Set in 1911, no more than 435 members are allowed in the House despite the country more than tripling in population since that time.  The result of this completely arbitrary cap has been massive gerrymandering that has led to severe political corruption, partisan gridlock and poor representation.  As evidenced by this misguided law, strict caps based on a randomly chosen number are a bad idea.  Let's imagine instead that a proportional cap had been created on Congress.  If that proportion was set based on the growth of the US population since 1911, today we would have 1,485 members of the House meaning far more local representation, less gerrymandering and the chance for competitive third parties to bring accountability to the electoral process.  Mileage caps for roads have a similar detrimental effect corrupting the way that states do business with local governments.


The example with the House of Representatives has nothing to do with roads, but the concept of arbitrary caps does.  In this case, it is the mileage cap used by states to limit highway system expansion to a set mileage.  The mileage cap is essentially a state agency deciding that they will no longer accept any new miles into the state highway system regardless of overall gains in road mileage.  Usually when these caps are created, it is done as a hasty action as a means to stop the bleeding of funds for a road system that was growing past the point of efficiency or as a means to reign in politically motivated roadways that never had any reason to be on the highway system and were not otherwise part of a special farm-to-market highway network.  Mileage caps are typically based on a completely arbitrary number that is set that essentially rounds off what just happened to be the approximate state highway system mileage at the time usually rounded off.  The result, however, has been hardship for local governments and leads to the slow, but proportional devolution of the state highway system.

Old US 19E north of Elizabethton, TN is an example of an old alignment that is maintained below standards.  Lines are faded out, guardrails are damaged and signs are in disrepair along this stretch of roadway that was turned to the local government in 1988.  It is still designated a collector route, but if a mileage cap had not been in place it may have remained on the state system as a secondary state route.  (Google Street View, May 2012).

Why is this bad?  These states with such caps use the "lane miles" argument to justify a continued devolution of the highway system, but evidence in these states is that the local funding ratio likewise does not increase in relation to the proportional decrease in state responsibility.  Lane miles will almost always increase regardless of who is in charge, and the "lane miles" argument is a weak one since population and thus the state's tax base also increases in conjunction with added lane miles.  If the state doesn't want more lane miles, then they can always choose to build, widen or pave fewer roads focusing funding instead on operational improvements.  This Trojan Horse argument has nothing to do with the unfunded mandate known as the mileage cap.  In addition, far more miles go to the local governments than the mileage indicates.  This is because every time a new road is built and added to the state highway system, some road must be downloaded to the local government, especially when a roadway is entirely new construction instead of a relocation of an existing highway.

Old GA 184 was turned to local maintenance in 1989 as a result of mileage swaps.  It was turned to Banks County who clearly does not have sufficient means to maintain it.  It is a major collector route.  While the state has funded significant improvements to the road since this image was captured, the fact is that that the road was in a neglected, unsafe condition for over 25 years because it was transferred to a county unprepared for that responsibility.  (Image from Google Street View, May 2014).

Local governments are still largely dependent on state funding, and local governments are generally not the most efficient means of maintaining arterial and major collector roads.  This was detailed in the Farm-To-Market Cooperative Plan.  When the state sets a mileage cap, it does not just mean that an old highway alignment is placed on the local level when a new road opens.  It also means that other highways, usually in rural areas, are also turned to local maintenance.  With no additional funding or state maintenance, roads like this tend to fall into disrepair under local control.  This is especially true when local policies and practices for road maintenance are already weak meaning that these local agencies are not going to make any special effort to maintain a former state highway vs. other local roads.  The need to "swap" roads simply leaves local governments with the cost of maintaining a road that they never built in the first place that they likely also lack sufficient means to maintain.  In all, it is a bad transportation policy and it weakens the abilities of local governments to manage limited funds by spreading available local funding even thinner.

What's also worse with mileage caps is that it prevents the road system from periodically being corrected to better adapt to new traffic patterns.  Roadways that no longer serve any statewide purpose are kept on the state system because the local agency does not want to lose those miles just to gain more on another road.  The states also start using these roads as "mileage banks" to withdraw at random just to deposit as added mileage for another new road meaning that the state has already deemed these older routes effectively useless.  Often times, a "lane mile" swap is even required thus a local agency is stuck with maintaining sections of roads twice as long as the new state routes.  Because of this, local agencies rarely propose any changes that would make sure that state routes actually line up with the best and most useful function.  If local agencies were not always threatened with losing state highway miles, this attitude would change and better routes would thus be developed.


The ratio cap is a concept that balances the needs of the state with the needs of local governments.  If a local agency's road responsibility massively increases then likewise they should be seeing more roads turned to state control.  They shouldn't have to worry if it "meets state standards" or that they have to "swap out another road".  In fact, all counties and municipalities should be able to put out a wish list each year on qualifying roads to place onto the system with the state able to add them based on the greatest need.  The state then takes them over as-is and then makes the needed changes themselves.  Picture this example in "sample state".
  • Sample State created a mileage cap in 1980 that restricted the state highway system to 10,000 miles
  • In 1980, the sum of all public roads in the state was 80,000 miles
  • Since 1980, the public road system has grown since then by 20,000 miles to 100,000 miles
  • In 1980 the state ratio was 12.5% under state control
  • In 2010, it had since dropped to 10%
  • The state also built and took over maintenance of 2,000 miles of new roads thus transferring 2,000 miles of other roads from the state system to the local system
  • This means that local agencies have had to take on an additional 20,000 miles of roadways without any additional funding from the state to do so
  • This 20,000 mile mandate includes 2,000 miles of roads formerly maintained by the state
What is seen here is an incredibly unfair situation for the local agencies.  The state has essentially devolved 2% of the state highway system directly to the counties that they transferred to new road mileage while the counties have subsequently had to maintain 20,000 more miles of roads.  While the gas tax in sample state did not change, the available funding grew proportional to the population growth.  This means that essentially the state has created an unfunded mandate.  Local governments were not given an option of keeping these roads on the state system before, because the mileage cap was inflexible.  The state was adding 2,000 miles of newly constructed roads and had to take the mileage from other roads.  After much debate and frustration from local authorities, sample state caved and reversed their policy.  
  • Seeing that the state ratio in 1980 was 12.5% when the cap was created, the state agreed to expand the state highway system back to the ratio it was in 1980
  • The state will continue to maintain this ratio cap not exceeding 12.5%, but it will allow the road system to grow thereafter in proportion to total system growth
  • This means that 2,500 miles will now be added to the state highway system
  • 1,500 of the 2,000 miles turned to the local authorities are then restored to the state highway system since they were determined to remain of high enough functional classification and traffic volumes to justify restoring
  • 1,000 miles of new state roads along existing local roads are added with mileage shared evenly among all 10 state highway divisions so that each division is able to add 100 miles of local roadways to the state system
  • Many local agencies were then no longer torn between paving and upgrading miles of former state routes and other major local roads
  • In 2015, the public road system grew an additional 500 miles
  • Thus, the state allowed up to 63 more miles of roads to be added to the state highway system since 2010.  50 of those miles were new roads with a couple old alignments retained as business routes.  13 additional miles were distributed to all 10 districts with some used and some reserved for additional growth of the system.  
  • While the state's responsibility increased, proportionally it did not change from 1980 after the mileage cap was replaced with a ratio cap and the 1980 ratio restored.

Many states that have mileage caps set these caps due to funding being inadequate, but is this really an excuse to place more responsibility on local governments that are suffering even more financially?  Is funding not going to increase with population?  In recent years very few states have grown their state-owned highway system at all.  Several have also recently begun turning back roads to local agencies at an increasing amount such as Colorado and Iowa.  States like Florida recently dropped below 10% for the first time since the 1940's.  If the states are unable to raise new revenues, that doesn't mean that they should make local governments suffer more for it.  The system should still be growing proportionally regardless of this, and the increasingly poor condition of state roads should only highlight the need to create new funding sources.  It is NOT an excuse to burden counties and cities with roads they have an even harder time affording.  While the proposals that State and Local Road Reform proposes are designed to promote more operational efficiency, improve safety and upgrade engineering standards they are not designed to repave roads.  The only way to repave roads when the money runs out is to raise more money.  Turning roads to the local level either through mileage caps or large-scale turnback events is not going to raise that money: it will only mean that local agencies will have to do more with less and that the road system will subsequently become less efficient.

It is understood that one of the reasons for mileage caps is to force counties to take over segments of old alignments that they would refuse to give up otherwise.  In states like Louisiana, Mississippi and Maryland it is not uncommon to see dead end roads, including old alignments with long-closed bridges, remaining on the state system.  However, this is a mileage distribution issue not a road mileage issue: it is a management issue.  The state DOT should have the authority to say "this road is not necessary for statewide travel and will be returned to the local government" while transferring that mileage to a road that does serve statewide traffic.  It is ridiculous to see roads that obviously serve a statewide purpose as county roads so that a road that no longer serves any purpose except as a two-lane driveway remaining on-system.  You see this sometimes in Maryland where a state primary route in Pennsylvania becomes a county road in Maryland while five sections of an old alignment nearby are still state highways.  Assuming that the county road has equivalent mileage to those segments, does it not make sense for the mileage to be transferred?    


Several states have openly advocated and advanced policies to transfer roads to the local level regardless of mileage.  These mileage caps also tend to mean mileage is lost instead of maintained at the level of the cap.  Louisiana, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Kansas are some of the most recent examples.  Analysis of the road systems in these four states between 1992 and 2012 show that:
  • Louisiana has instated a mileage cap with a net gain of only 12 miles
  • Pennsylvania has lost 4,629 miles in those 20 years (the system began scaling back mileage beginning with a large-scale turnback event in 1984)
  • South Carolina instated a mileage cap in 1993 but has officially turned back 245 miles
  • Kansas's state road mileage dropped by 356 miles despite a gain in local road mileage of 6,959 miles.
State ratios dropped, respectively, from 28.4% to 27.2% in Louisiana, from 37.4% to 33.2% in Pennsylvania, from 64.9% to 62.5% in South Carolina and 8.0% to 7.3% in Kansas.  It should be granted South Carolina is a unique situation with its high level of state responsibility, but is clear that most states today are not a friend to local governments in terms road funding and maintenance responsibility.  

Let's look at two states with known mileage caps comparing data that demonstrates the proportional decay of their state highway systems:


Indiana is well known for its 12,000 mile cap on state highway mileage.  This cap keeps the system small in relation to other Midwestern states, and unlike its neighbors on each side, the state lacks a township road program to consolidate county responsibility to a few major roads.  While this might seem more efficient, these are still lower population counties.  The resulting county road standards unfortunately mirror the unpredictable conditions found on county roads throughout much of the Southeast with some more populous counties and cities doing a better job than others.  Regardless, the state has been so prudent that mileage is actually well below the mileage cap and declining.

In 1992, INDOT was responsible for 11,294 miles or 12.3% of the road system.  In 2012, that number dropped to 11,006 miles or 11.3 % of the road system.  This means that officially local governments had to take over 288 miles of former state roads, but the actual local road mileage jumped 5,234 miles since that time.  This means if a ratio cap had been set in 1992 at the rate it was then, the state road system should already be close to approaching 12,000 miles at 11,936 miles.  If the rate had been 12,000 miles then, the rate would have been 13.0%.  This means that system should have grown to 12,647 miles in that 20 year span: a modest net gain of 647 miles which would have at least retained state highway mileage as new roads were built.  Instead, local governments have had to take on nearly 300 additional roads instead of INDOT gaining around 650 miles.  The state would have not been hurt by this modest gain, but the counties and cities that lost these highways certainly were.  

What Indiana should consider is going back to the date when the mileage cap was instated and calculate the ratio in relation to what the total public system mileage was that year.  That ratio should then be calculated based on the current public road mileage to determine the correct road mileage that the state should be maintaining.  In this example, it was 13% but considering that the mileage cap was likely created during the 1960's or 1970's, the ratio is probably closer to 15%.  This means that 14,593 miles should be on the state highway system adding a sum of 3,587 miles.  


For around 20 years Georgia enjoyed one of the best funded road networks in the Southeast due to an earnest commitment to use road funding for only roads.  Plentiful revenues were funneled into massive road projects all over the state meant to both keep up with the fast growth in North Georgia while attempting to improve the economic conditions in rural counties in other areas.  This also meant that the state highway system should have been growing to help the fast growing state keep up with the demand for new and wider roads.  Instead, GDOT has enforced a strict mileage cap since 1963 when the legislature panicked over the growth of the state highway system.  The cap in 1963 was put in place to force the state to maintain the roads they had built thus stopping the growth of politically-motivated state highways additions.  While that seemed like a good policy at the time, that did not mean that slow growth could not have continued since then.  

During the period of massive system growth via new construction during the 70's and 80's, the state likewise turned back between 1,000-3,000 miles of state routes to the local governments to funnel to these new roads.  Most of these highways were located in rural counties who lacked adequate resources to maintain them thus the condition of those roads declined markedly.  While the state later worked with counties to greatly improve the condition of the worn out pavement on those roads all throughout the 1990's and early 2000's and is now using federal-aid for safety upgrades, these aging roads are still proving too much for local governments to adequately maintain on their own.  In other words, the counties are not really doing much themselves to maintain these roads.  They're just waiting for the state to help them when at one point the state maintained them consistently.

While statistics for mileage cannot be located back to 1963, the mileage for 1967 is available.  At that time, the state system was around 18-19% of the total road system mileage with state system mileage not yet reaching the 18,000 mile cap until 1972.  The first data including city streets available was in 1975 and showed a state ratio of 17.9%.  That ratio has dropped today to 14.3%.  This means that in 40 years, the ratio of state control has dropped by 3.7% while the local road system has increased by 24,000 miles: an increase of 19.2%.  

What this means is that Georgia should have enacted an incremental increase of mileage over the past 40 years.  Based on 1975 statistics alone this comes out to at least 4,528 miles.  This mileage could place the majority of functionally significant former state highways back onto the state highway system as well as adding many new roads that are currently maintained by county and city governments.  This would thus relieve local governments of many expensive to maintain roads in both poorer rural areas and in areas with high traffic and population.  This averages to 28.5 miles of roads per county or 646.9 miles per GDOT district. 

If GDOT does not change any other policy, the state system should be expanded to more closely align with the original state control ratio in 1963.  This would mean the state assuming control of the thousands of miles of federal-aid secondary road projects they built.  Under this, the state ratio would also bump higher to around 20% meaning that 7,000 miles of state highways would fall under state control.  This would mean not only the restoration of all former state routes that remain today functionally classified as major collector or arterial roads but also the addition of many other major collector roads.  The highway system would then be allowed to grow proportionally to at least be adequate to not only prevent unjustified mileage swaps, but also to occasionally add new roads to the system.  


If the goal of states is to improve their state road system, then that state road system should have reliable mileage that is not gradually chipped away as the system grows with a commitment to place that mileage on the roadways that provide the greatest benefit.  This blog has demonstrated that roadways transferred to local governments are frequently maintained at well below the standards they were as state highways.  Local governments have also shown that they do not have the resources to expand their responsibility periodically onto more and more roads.  These states who have mileage caps in place need to revisit and revise their policy, preferably rectifying the mistake they made by replacing their mileage cap with a ratio cap.  Furthermore, they need to subsequently restore state ratios to their prior levels when the cap was put in place.  While states may feel strained from added mileage, this cost is a sunk cost.  Somebody has to maintain these roads, and the states are the ones best suited to do it or these roads would not have been state roads in the first place.

No comments:

Post a Comment