Friday, September 4, 2015

Regional Roads Plan Spotlight: Fulton County, GA (Updated 4/12/17)

[This post is written as an example of the Regional Roads Plan]

The regional concept was developed primarily as a way to cluster counties together to provide top notch state-level services, but it has not focused so much on regional services in individual counties or among clusters of cities.  However, the New Jersey regional plan conceived the idea that maybe some counties should function more like states in regards to how they work with cities and towns.  In truth the best ideas are likely to begin as movements in urban areas of cities since the population and resources are available in those places to try new things as well as the clout available to push the state government to alter their current approach.

Usually the regional concepts being presented involve one of two things:

  • The combination of counties into multi-county regions
  • An expanded role by the state.  

The plan presented here adopts the regional concept, but with application on a single county level that potentially clusters in bordering cities.  Adopting a regional plan on a county level is a good first step, but most likely to be beneficial when the county already has a high population.  In fact, the Regional Roads Plan does allow for single-county road maintenance districts as long as the county population is at least 300,000 residents.  At present, Fulton County is nearing 1,000,000 residents making it more than eligible for not just a regional road district, but also a metropolitan road district.  Although the concept that will be presented here is for a single county in Georgia, the hope is that it will not only correct road jurisdictional issues within the county but also that the new laws it will create will lead to far-reaching reforms across the state.  Annexation by cities should not necessarily mean that all county-level municipal services are instantly eliminated.

Fulton County is Georgia's most populous county but it is also the most fragmented.  Once far more unified with a very large unincorporated area, the last unincorporated part of the county (approximately 50,000 residents), was just eliminated by the creation of the "City of South Fulton", essentially carving the entire county into a combination of cities and functional townships.  Frustration among the constituents that county services were inadequate and poorly distributed led to the division of the county the way it is today.  Bordering counties Gwinnett and especially DeKalb are heading in the same direction with new cities approved recently carving up those counties as well.  Their arguments were indeed valid, but it does not necessarily mean the county's role in transportation had to vanish.  Instead of the county becoming effectively defunct, it could return as a partner.

Today a battle is brewing over the last unincorporated area.  Instead of a battle with the county, it is a battle over self-incorporation vs. annexation by the state's largest and most powerful city: Atlanta.  Regardless of the outcome, Fulton County will exit the road business if either strategy succeeds.  What was lost in all this drive for more localized governance is that the county road system was effectively destroyed.  Instead, it was replaced with individual cities all maintaining their own chunks.  That might have been fine if the state highway system had been large enough to control every consequential road in the county, but this has never been the case.  The saga all started with the large-scale annexations by Roswell and Alpharetta in the 1990's and then escalated in 2005 and again in 2006 when much of Fulton County was reapportioned into a series of new cities that include Sandy Springs, Milton, Johns Creek, Chattahoochee Hills and now, lastly, South Fulton.  Today every city in the county is landlocked except for a region in southwestern Fulton that borders Atlanta, Chattahoochee Hills, Union City and Fairburn.  Except for that small area almost the entire county is divided among 14 cities who have effectively not only neutered county government, but also created municipalities with no ability to expand their borders to increase their own tax base for services.

A NORTHERN SITUATION IN A SOUTHERN CITY

The point of this is that the cities have driven Fulton County into a very Northeastern situation.  In either New York or New Jersey these new cities would be much older cities, towns, townships or subdivisions of townships.  The difference is that in both states that county government is not separate from municipal or township government.  Instead, it actually overlays all of these smaller governments demonstrated further in how road maintenance responsibility is delegated.  In both states, counties function more like regional collectives of municipalities much like Fulton County has become.  "County roads" are instead the major connecting roads found throughout the county that are otherwise not part of the state highway system while roads maintained by the municipalities are truly local in nature.

While some county roads are local in nature in these two states, the vast majority follow roadways designated arterial and collector.  Townships, boroughs, cities, towns and villages maintain the rest.  In Fulton County, however, these roads are maintained solely by the cities within: no exceptions.  In no way is this an efficient means to operate a road system and it means both widely varying standards and a lack of regional coordination for roads of regional importance.  Such a situation like what is found in the Northeast could also be introduced in Fulton County even though these cities are not technically townships.  Nevertheless, the idea is just the same.  What this basically means is that Fulton County should begin the cities themselves should develop their own regional system across the county extending across borders with the intent to retake control of many county roads regardless of what "city" the roads are in, and they have precedent in other states that can be followed to prove that they have a right to pursue control of these roads.  This agreement among cities can involve either just certain roads and streets or entire road networks.


In North Fulton County, city boundaries book end each other on Providence Road.  A collector road, Providence Road would be eligible for a return to county maintenance under this plan despite falling within the City of Milton (image from Google Street View).

So how should Fulton County the cities go about doing this?

REGIONAL ROADS ON A COUNTY LEVEL

The plan that Fulton County should pursue is to go to the legislature to fight for the right to restore county services on the backbone routes throughout the county.  The first step that cities should pursue is to begin discussions with neighboring cities to share services.  They should start with just traffic control and create a traffic control cooperative among two or more cities.  This would mean, for instance, that Johns Creek, Milton and Alpharetta partner to provide consolidated traffic control services.  If this works, expand these services southward through the county to other cities or across county lines to bordering cities such as Peachtree Corners or Dunwoody.  Initially this expansion of services should also avoid counties to focus on the new cities that likely do not already have the infrastructure in place to provide their own DOT.  This chain of partnerships could be more logical than county lines and aligned with cities who share the same goals.  At the very least, most of Fulton County could be combined into a traffic control partnership with bordering cities in neighboring counties allowed to join.  Logical partners are border cities to Fulton County that include:


  1. Peachtree Corners (Gwinnett County)
  2. Duluth (Gwinnett County)
  3. Berkeley Lake (Gwinnett County)
  4. Norcross (Gwinnett County - borders Peachtree Corners)
  5. Brookhaven (DeKalb)
  6. Dunwoody (DeKalb)
  7. Smyrna (Cobb)
  8. Forest Park (Clayton)
  9. Tyrone (Fayette)


The combination of these cities would add nearly 270,000 residents to the tax base needed to operate regional traffic control while keeping the focus primarily on Fulton County.  Further expansion beyond this will necessarily include participation by either other bordering cities or the counties themselves.  This will strengthen the capabilities of these cities, three of those recently created, and allow municipalities across the Atlanta area to again enjoy county-level standards for road maintenance similar to what Cobb County currently enjoys.

If this initial effort is successful, the next step to take is to see if resources can be pooled to place certain roads across Fulton County under sole control of a cooperative.  This would not negate traffic control, but it would expand the responsibility for most arterial and collector roads to a regional network: at least across the county.  Perhaps even City of Atlanta would be interested in participating in such a system, and a regional system across the county would mean efficient and high standard maintenance of major roads at less cost.  This means that roadways that are designated collector and arterial should necessarily transfer from control of the individual cities back to the county while the remaining local streets can remain (mostly) under control of the individual cities.  In addition, Fulton County the countywide cooperative should also pursue authority to begin contracting with GDOT for maintenance of state highways as a way of strengthening the role of the state's most populous county.  Currently GDOT contracts with cities, but they do not contract with any counties.  This means that in Fulton County that surface roadways through every city including Atlanta would actually fall under control of the countywide cooperative including roadways owned by GDOT.  Only interstates and expressways would continue to operate under state control, which is pretty much the case today with the city maintenance agreements in place.  This dual strategy would greatly improve the quality of roads across the entire county and would create more operational efficiency for both the county and for GDOT.  With the combination of state maintenance payments and county resources shared for maintenance of only the most heavily traveled roads, every city in Fulton County would be served by a strong regional DOT capable of providing high quality services.


Major county roads like Capps Ferry Road, which becomes South Fulton Parkway, have portions that are not part of the state highway system.  Their upkeep should not be falling to city governments, especially ones like Chattahoochee Hills whose population is around 2,000 residents.  Cities should be maintaining truly local streets while major county roads are maintained by the county.

Fulton County would technically be back in the driver's seat for county roads, but does it have to stop at the county line?  If bordering cities decide to contract to the countywide cooperative agency for traffic control, perhaps they would also be interested in participating in the secondary highway system.  Perhaps even area counties would be interested in participating such as Gwinnett and DeKalb: both losing funding due to the municipal expansion in their counties.  Additionally, across the county four cities have populations under 10,000 residents making them inadequate in population to fully maintain their own roads.  The new regional agency could by agreement contract to provide not just traffic control, but all routine maintenance to these city streets in the cities of Chattahoochee Hills, Hapeville, Mountain Park and Palmetto relieving these cities of the costs of maintaining those streets.



The view presented here is that high population counties are best-suited to maintain surface state roads like Ga. 9 through Roswell above, but not expressway-type roads such as South Fulton Parkway (now U.S. 29 Alt) as shown below.  As a county road, Fulton County was unable to adequately meet the maintenance needs of South Fulton Parkway, but the proposal helps to strengthen the county government so that it is able to sufficiently maintain both systems effectively creating a state primary and secondary system throughout the county.

A NEW PRECEDENT FOR FULTON COUNTY AND THE ATLANTA REGION

This new goal of overlaying traffic control and ultimately road maintenance authority for certain streets in cities across Fulton County and the region would set a new precedent in county road maintenance for the entire state of Georgia.  In addition, the transfer of maintenance authority for state roads from the state to the county would also introduce the concept of county maintenance on state roads.  County maintenance of state roads is often talked about but rarely done and to knowledge has never been done in Georgia.  A few states do contract with counties for road maintenance, however.  The closest of those is Florida.  

Fulton County vs. Fulton Cities: Not So Fast!

Under current state policy, cities essentially annex away a county road system in addition to taking away available funding to maintain those roads.  Thus, on a county level services are cut, standards are inconsistent, quality suffers and available maintenance funding is reduced as a city within a county grows.  Fulton County's ability to maintain roads suffered for years prior to 2005 as its cities with the strongest tax bases continued to swallow road funding.  This should not have happened this way.  Instead of cities annexing away road responsibility and road maintenance funding on roads of regional importance, Fulton County can and should be able to negotiate with the cities to share in the cost of maintaining these roads for the good of the whole county.  Thus, major roads through all of the cities within the county would necessarily transfer from the city back to the county while the cities continue to maintain other functionally local streets on their own.  Why should a roadway of regional importance be maintained by a municipality with a very small land area and similarly limited priorities?

In addition, state law mandates that all cities provide at least three essential services.  At present a city contracting with any county for any service eliminates one major service.  If the county and city are splitting that responsibility, then the city is still providing that service and thus is not in danger of losing its charter.  Likewise, other counties who have portions of the county pursuing more localized control through new cities or city annexation do not jeopardize county services the way they do today.  The overlaying of services also allows the cities to work with the county instead of independent of the county.  

Which roads should the county take over and how many miles?

Unlike the previous county responsibility, this plan is not designed as a quest for Fulton County to regain all of the roads formerly under their authority.  Instead, the idea is to develop a county or regional highway system that overlays all presently existing jurisdictions only taking back the roads of greatest importance while leaving the smaller, more residential streets to the cities.  The roads that should be placed on a countywide or larger system:
  1. State-owned surface state routes (routine maintenance, state continues to own the road)
  2. City-owned arterial roads
  3. City-owned major collector roads
  4. City-owned minor collector roads
  5. Maintenance agreements for routine county maintenance on city-owned local streets.  This can range from traffic control agreements and/or shared traffic engineering agreements in the larger cities to routine county maintenance of city streets in the lowest population cities and towns.
Roads that should not be pursued by the county:
  1. Arterial and collector roads through historic and/or central business districts of cities (e.g. maintenance/ownership gaps should be permitted through the CBD such as downtown Atlanta or downtown Roswell).  These roads usually have city development standards that are likely to clash with county standards.  The exact mileage of these areas is impossible to determine, but are likely to be quite low.
  2. City-owned functionally local streets
  3. Interstates and expressways under state control.
    • County or city-owned freeways and expressways would definitely be included in the countywide regional system although none exist in Fulton County
With the above criteria, the results are based on the total county mileage (excluding other jurisdictions) from 2014 [4190.09 miles*]:


The chart above breaks down the ratio of county functional classifications.  Source: GDOT.  Mileage by Route and Road System Report, 2014.  http://www.dot.ga.gov/DriveSmart/Data/Documents/400%20Series/445/DPP445_2014.pdf


This now obsolete chart shows the remaining county road responsibility prior to 2017.  It shows that cities presently maintain the vast majority of roads in the county with county roads concentrated in one area of the county.  Unfortunately it is extremely difficult to determine which county roads are eligible for federal-aid, but prior to the creation of City of South Fulton, the collective of the county's 14 cities absorbed most of the road system  Source: GDOT.  Mileage by Route and Road System Report, 2014.  http://www.dot.ga.gov/DriveSmart/Data/Documents/400%20Series/445/DPP445_2014.pdf

From that, we conclude  that of those roads not maintained by the state that:
  • 502.42 miles (12.0%) of the Fulton County total road mileage is federal-aid eligible
  • 906.31 miles (21.6%) of the Fulton County total road mileage is designated arterial or collector with non-federal-aid minor collectors taking up the largest chunk
  • Combined with surface state road maintenance, the Fulton County responsibility would climb to 1178.83 miles or 28.1% of the total county road inventory (excluding other jurisdictions)
  • A total of 4190.09 miles of roadway are in Fulton County.
  • If the entire county is incorporated, according to this plan at least 2,606.41 miles (62.2%) of functionally local city streets would remain primary or sole responsibility of the cities.

This chart shows the breakdown of the proposed county highway system treating remaining county roads as "city streets" due to missing data showing the breakdown of functional classification among the county system.

The second chart shows the breakdown of functional classifications across the county while the last chart shows proposed county maintenance responsibilty.  Fulton County's 504.47 miles (12.0% of total) of county roads remaining are not shown in this chart, however, because it is unknown how many of those roads are designated collector or arterial.  All of those will likely be either annexed into Atlanta or chartered into a new city became streets in the new City of South Fulton.  If it could be assumed, however, that all of these roads were functionally local, the percentage here would equal 40% under county control, but the ratio is probably closer to 35-37%.  The chart above, however, shows that regional county road maintenance responsibility would most likely range from 20-25% meaning the countywide responsibility would be for just over 900 miles of roads or almost 1200 if state highway responsibility is included.  If $3,500 per mile were considered an appropriate amount for these regional roads in Fulton County alone, the cost annually would be $3.15 million.  If the state chipped in for regional maintenance of state routes, that would offset those costs by nearly $1 million resulting in an annual budget of approximately $4 million.

Compare this to the actual breakdown of roadway responsibilities throughout the county.  In the situation that the county lost control of its remaining unincorporated areas, but took over responsibility of major thoroughfares, the net increase of county responsibility would climb from the present former remaining responsibility of 590.87 miles to 906.31 miles, an increase of 2/3.  If state road maintenance is factored in, this would double the county's present responsibility.

TAXING AUTHORITY

In order for Fulton County to pursue cooperative maintenance of county roads within the cities, the county cooperative will necessarily be able to require a part of the city's portion of county funding.  This can be done two ways: a mileage ratio or a rate per mile.  In the mileage ratio, the county takes a percentage based on how many miles the county maintains within the city vs. the total mileage in the city.  
  1. In the first instance, the county is maintaining 21.6% of the roads but in lane miles they are responsible for slightly less at 20.4%.  This means that the county cooperative keeps back 20.4% of the overall taxes including those divided among the cities for those roads usually through the sales tax.  Thus, if a 1 cent sales tax nets $50,000,000 budgeted for roads per year (guesstimate) the county cooperative can keep back $10,200,000 to construct and maintain county roads.
  2. In the second example, cities are required to "pay back" the county cooperative on a rate-per-mile basis.  Let us assume that Fulton County the regional cooperative requires $10,000 per lane mile for county maintenance on city streets.  As an example, the City of Roswell is used.  The city has 500 lane miles and 100 of those are maintained by the countywide cooperative.  Thus, the city will be required to pay back the county $100,000 for those 100 lane miles.  The second method is easier to understand and less likely to be misunderstood or abused by either party.
BROADER IMPLICATIONS

If the cities of Fulton County develop an agency to jointly maintain a county road system overlaying city streets, this will free other counties to also pursue countywide maintenance along major roads within the city limits of cities.  This means that Gwinnett, DeKalb and Cobb, all large counties threatened by or undergoing municipalization, will thus have an option to retain or regain control of principal thoroughfares within cities throughout the county.  This will also eliminate the jurisdictional patchworks that annexations have created for road maintenance on major roads such as what is found in fast-growing cities like Acworth in Cobb County. In addition, this method will allow the possibility that a highway agency will develop across all of Atlanta metro that operates only within the region and separate from GDOT.

Fulton County is the perfect pilot project for countywide cooperative maintenance of state routes in Georgia

Secondly, Fulton County the countywide cooperative pursuing maintenance of state routes provides an opportunity to greatly increase funding and expand capacity for the county regional government allowing other large population county governments to consolidate maintenance with the state.  As it is currently, state maintenance in much of Metro Atlanta is very limited with the four largest counties in population all having less than 10% of the county road inventory under state control.  This means that the state investment on a local level off of the interstates for maintenance is minimal at best and is low priority for GDOT.  While the effectiveness of county or regional maintenance of state routes in improving county-owned roads in rural counties is not clear, it would be a huge boost to any of the four metro Atlanta counties: all with populations exceeding 500,000 residents.  The other 21 counties in the state with populations exceeding 100,000 residents would likely benefit as well.  Integrate state and county maintenance together would also greatly improve coordination and maintenance output for both systems.


Unifying state maintenance under county authority could mean better maintenance of both county and state routes.  In this image, the city of Alpharetta installed a trailblazer on Westside Pkwy approaching Old Milton Pkwy/Ga. 120 showing that local contracting for state routes can be done well.  However, the plan would replace Alpharetta as the contractor for state routes with Fulton County.  

Currently cities are obligated to provide state highway maintenance within cities.  If this responsibility transfers to a larger region, it does in effect break that contract.  However, the region will also be taking major road responsibility from the cities and will be able to much more efficiently provide state highway maintenance than a city can.  This means that if any county in Georgia is providing state highway maintenance it supplants any and all city maintenance contracts on state-owned roads.  

A successful regional pilot in Fulton County could break ground for other metro counties and possibly even a larger unified Atlanta regional highway system

Most importantly, a successful pursuit of a regional county highway system in Fulton County can lay the groundwork to expand into a regional highway system covering all of Atlanta Metro.  In other words, if Fulton County were to successfully pursue this two-pronged approach of obtaining the authority to maintain major roads countywide including within cities and along state highways it would basically create a legal option for other counties to pursue this as well.  While these roads would obviously start as county responsibility, having the backbone roads as county roads regardless of jurisdiction will make it easier for other metro Atlanta counties to identify and join together their backbone highway system to eventually evolve into a multi-county regional road system that better aligns road maintenance with function.  Perhaps Cobb, Gwinnett and DeKalb will also see the writing on the wall and develop a similar system.  It would only make sense to join these systems together to create at minimum a four county regional highway system that could eventually expand to cover the entire Atlanta metropolitan area.  A larger regional system could also expand local authority to also include interstates and expressways.

If pursued, maintenance of state highways by counties should be population-limited to see if it works.  Initially the population floor should be 500,000 allowing only the largest four counties, all in the Atlanta area, to pursue this option.  If the plan is broadly adopted and successful, the program can be expanded each year to lower tiers on a trial basis: the next tier would be counties over 200,000 then counties over 150,000 and finally those counties over 100,000 residents.  It is generally assumed that any further consolidation for this purpose remains above 50,000 residents due to greatly diminishing returns for lower population areas.  Below 50,000 residents GDOT should pursue the opposite approach for remaining counties across the state expanding partial or full state maintenance of county routes in lower population counties possibly through service swapping.

Centralization strategies such as this are a hedge against declining state funding and responsibility

State government services are on the decline, so it is important that counties and cities pursue a more direct and centralized approach instead of just being the default maintenance operation for their assigned areas where the roads are not under state control.  They need to be proactive in operating as a true division of state government providing the best services at the least cost.  By developing a highway system that operates in conjunction with GDOT, the cities, county and eventually the entire Atlanta region can pick up the slack with planning, construction and maintenance of roads where the state has left off.  This can also help GDOT to better focus their resources on maintaining the interstates and expressways while entrusting the counties to maintain surface state routes.

A LARGELY URBAN STRATEGY

This plan is designed primarily for implementation in urbanized metropolitan areas with higher population density where cities and towns carve up much of the land area within a county.  However, the one part of this approach that should be adopted statewide if nothing else is considered is the right of high population counties to maintain collector and arterial streets through cities and towns where city-county services are not already consolidated such as in Athens, Augusta, Macon and Columbus.  Even in places like Clarke County, the county would still gain the authority to maintain through routes through Winterville, the one separate municipality within the county.  Most cities and towns lack the resources to adequately maintain major surface streets on their own so transferring this responsibility to the county will not only enhance county resources, but also better integrate the principal thoroughfares within cities with unincorporated areas.  It will also help better balance funding so that the county tax base is not as heavily dilluted or depleted by cities. 

In all, two plans were combined to create this broader plan: the Regional Roads Plan and the Two-Way Consolidated Road Maintenance Plan.  With the former, a regional system is developed within a single county (Fulton) with the hope it will eventually lead to a broader regional system.  With the latter, GDOT hiring Fulton County to maintain state-owned surface roads adopts part of the Two-Way Consolidated Road Maintenance Plan since the other way (states contracted to maintain county roads) does not apply to Fulton County.  The strong hope is that the cities of not only Fulton County, but other parts of Atlanta realize that this would be an opportunity to not only restore the nearly gutted Fulton County DOT through the incorporation of much of the county, but also to create an opportunity to maintain a far more efficient and high standard road system than the county was able to provide in previous years.  

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