New Jersey is uniquely bad when it comes to fragmentation of road maintenance and the high costs that come from it. Although all 21 counties maintain roads with most having adequately high populations to provide acceptable work, the collective responsibility for the roads by the counties across the state is a mere 17%. That is worsened by the fact that New Jersey's 2,300 mile state route system makes up only 6% of New Jersey's roads: the smallest ratio found anywhere in the United States. The remaining roads are divided up among the 565 municipalities covering every inch of the state, which is quite an extreme number considering that the state is 47th in land area! Obviously something needs to be done, because this is a costly and ineffective approach to public services including road maintenance.
Currently there is a push to consolidate township governments at least in functions, but they are missing the point in that their proposals in no way go far enough to address the issue. They are also unrealistic. The townships, boroughs and villages are most likely not going to go away, but that does not mean they should continue to retain all the powers they do today. Townships can be neutered much in the way they were more than a century ago in the Carolinas so that over time they ultimately remain as a mere historical footnote. Similarly, townships in this case are simply worked around in lieu of erased. More specifically, the strategy that will be presented here only curtails road maintenance responsibility on a municipal level with the two-fold goal of heavily cutting costs while greatly improving the standards of all locally maintained roads on both the county and municipal networks.
The solution to New Jersey's extreme local taxation appears to be complex because of the many layers of local government. Unlike in other states where the counties themselves are often the issue, in New Jersey this is not so much the case. Most counties are the right size to offer good quality public services, but the reality is that counties are quite weak in the state compared to many other states providing few if any services other than road maintenance. Counties likewise are more than capable of providing regional needs if only their duties could be expanded to cover far more local services. In fact, a couple counties themselves could stand to be split into two counties because their population is so large: Middlesex and Bergen.
Nevertheless, some consolidation of functions involving multiple counties is considered in this plan. While not as dramatic on a county level as the plans presented in other states, the concept of regional road maintenance is proposed for all levels of government in the state. The regional roads plan applied in New Jersey involves several levels of reform. This is not just a simple clustering of counties for public services. Everything from the state to the borough level must be changed to make it work starting with roads. Here are the changes that must be made:
- County Contracting for State Maintenance. Because of the very low ratio of state control, all counties should be required to maintain state-owned roads as well as their own county road systems. Under this rule NJDOT no longer directly maintains roads, but will have more authority to supervise county practices since the counties will all be maintaining state roads, including traffic control.
- Multi-County Regional Road Districts. Eight counties lack adequate population to meet the criteria presented in the Regional Roads Plan for a single-county region. These eight counties should be combined into three regions, which will be explained further. While not the most important part of this plan, it is worth consideration.
- Expanded County/Regional Control. Counties/regions should be required to maintain all roads eligible for federal-aid regardless of what jurisdiction the road falls under. This includes cities and towns.
- Limitations on Township and Borough Road Maintenance Authority. The vast majority of townships should lose the right to maintain a separate road system with the criteria based solely on a minimum population threshold. All townships and boroughs will retain ownership in addition to construction funding and authority, but routine maintenance activities will partially or completely transfer to the county or region road district.
- City/Town Contracting with County/Region. All cities and towns that do not meet minimum population thresholds should also be required to transfer routine maintenance responsibility to the county/region but will retain ownership in addition to construction funding and authority. Other cities/towns may contract voluntarily, but routine maintenance on federal-aid eligible roads remains county responsibility except in central business districts.
- Expanded State Control of Roads? All elements of this plan strengthen the counties so that they are financially well-suited to not only maintain their own roads but also improve the conditions of township and other municipal roads. However, this does not mean the state cannot step in and help further consolidate responsibility for roads presently maintained by the counties.
- Counties Joining Together for Road Maintenance. Perhaps counties themselves could join forces to form a single statewide unit that handles road maintenance on both county roads and municipal roads contracted to the county. This would in effect create a state secondary system that operates as a cooperative of all counties instead of under authority of NJDOT
- Cape May (Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland Counties)
- Delaware (Gloucester, Salem)
- Poconos (Hunterdon, Warren, Sussex)
Also note that regions 2 and 3 could be combined. Salem County is actually in the same transportation planning region as Atlantic, Cumberland and Cape May Counties suggesting that Gloucester should be on their own while Salem is partnered with the other four counties. If possible, all five counties should be grouped in the same region.
- Township and borough street departments should be dissolved in all townships/boroughs that have fewer than 25,000 residents. These local agencies may retain funding for roadway projects, but routine maintenance and engineering becomes sole county responsibility. (Special note: townships and boroughs that are within 1,000 residents of 25,000 residents will not be required to dissolve)
- Traffic control responsibility should be revoked for all townships/boroughs that have fewer than 50,000 residents. This means that they may not plan, install or maintain traffic signs, signals, pavement markings or other roadway safety features while retaining authority otherwise to construct and maintain roads. Townships between 25,000-50,000 residents may retain street departments but may not plan, install or maintain traffic signs, signals, pavement markings or other roadway safety features. These will become solely county or regional responsibility.
- Townships over 50,000 residents may have complete autonomy, but they should be encouraged and permitted to share or swap services with counties/regions. In general, townships should provide winter maintenance and summer mowing/street cleaning along state/county/regional roads while counties provide an equivalent dollar amount in traffic safety items and traffic studies. This is a localized version of the "agility agreements" used in Pennsylvania.
- Cities/towns should be required to dissolve their own street department and use county/regional forces if the population is less than 10,000 residents.
- Traffic control responsibility should be revoked for all cities/towns under 25,000 residents. Cities/towns between 10,000-25,000 residents may retain street departments but may not plan, install or maintain traffic signs, signals, pavement markings or other roadway safety features. These will become solely county or regional responsibility.
- Cities/towns over 25,000 residents should have complete autonomy, but they should be encouraged and permitted to share or swap services with counties. In general, cities should provide winter maintenance and summer mowing/street cleaning along state/county/regional roads while counties provide an equivalent dollar amount in traffic safety items and traffic studies.
Expanded State Control of Roads?
The elephant in the room is the reality of New Jersey's highway responsibility and how much of a huge financial burden it places on local governments. At present, New Jersey has the lowest ratio of state control of any state in the country. It is so low in fact that state responsibility seems almost negligible going so far that even parts of a US highway fall under county control (U.S. 202). This puts a disproportionate burden on local governments to maintain these roads with quite a few arterial roads carrying the bulk of the state's traffic being local responsibility. It also duplicates services unnecessarily.
Bordering Pennsylvania has no county roads except in one county due to the size of their state highway system. The state has also developed programs to bring township maintenance standards to near the levels of PennDOT. While gas taxes in Pennsylvania are considerably higher, the financial burden on local governments is much lower with townships primarily responsible for roads that carry truly local traffic. The first five steps of the strategy presented for New Jersey here work with the existing county system to strengthen it so that every county functions like a state within a state removing redundancies that raise costs and lower roadway standards. With New Jersey's high population it makes sense to have counties do more, but that does not mean that the state cannot expand its responsibility so that the 21 separate county road systems are consolidated into one single state agency.
Even if the state government does NOT assume every county road agency, that does not mean that certain counties cannot simply contract their county road agency with NJDOT. This means that county roads in less populous counties such as Salem and Hunterdon may actually choose to transfer roads to NJDOT for maintenance while more populous counties would not. With the state's newly boosted gas tax (37.1 cents per gallon), the state can afford to absorb more responsibility as long as the counties are willing to pay for it. This would also mean that any county contracted with a town who contracts with NJDOT would be expanding NJDOT's maintenance responsibility to those roads as well.
If the state took all over county roads, it would offer a huge tax savings on a local level significantly lowering taxes on a county level. The cost savings realized in states like Virginia where county road responsibility is mostly eliminated are enormous in that the local tax burden is significantly lower than surrounding states.
Overall, the state control approach is worth considering though probably unnecessary due to the huge economies of scale that will be created from county maintenance of state roads coupled with expanded county responsibility onto roads maintained by most municipalities, but this option needs to be considered as a means of further right-sizing local responsibility and cutting costs across the state. Even if this strategy is adopted, however, this does not cancel out the other elements of this plan. In addition to county maintenance of state routes, this still includes the three proposed multi-county regions and county maintenance of low population town roads. Overall, counties really should not be maintaining major highways while small, low population municipalities should be not be maintaining what would be county-maintained roads in other states but there are ways to make that approach work better.
Counties Joining Together For Road Maintenance
As an alternative to expanded state control, it is very possible that the counties themselves could form a collective by combining funding and their agencies into a statewide operation with uniform standards and policy. It would effectively become a statewide agency operating independent of NJDOT. This would bring uniform, high standards to the entire county road system and would reduce costs by pooling resources for purchases, maintenance and planning. If coupled with maintenance of lower population townships, it would effectively create a very efficient road system while keeping NJDOT an entirely separate agency.
With the population threshold, a few higher population municipalities will retain partial or full powers. The breakdown is as follows:
- 47 municipalities (8.3%) will continue to be permitted to maintain their own road system separate from county goverment
- 70 municipalities (12.4%) will continue to be permitted to maintain their own road system, but will be required to use county, regional or state forces for traffic control
- Regional or state forces handling municipal traffic control would depend on which agency is responsible for county roads in that county
- This means that 117 of the 565 municipalities (20.7%) will continue to provide road maintenance services on their own
- The combined population of the free or partially free municipalities is 5,391,090 (61.3%)
- The combined population of the captive municipalities is 3,400,804 (38.7%)
- This means that despite the majority of municipalities being captive to the county, the majority of the state's population resides in a free municipality
- Further broken down the free municipalities include 33 cities, 7 boroughs, 65 townships, 10 towns and 2 villages.
- Of those, 8 of those cities, all 7 boroughs, 46 townships, 7 towns and both villages will be required to use county or regional forces for engineering and routine maintenance of traffic control
- All other jurisdictions will be required to use either county or regional forces because their populations are not at adequate levels to be able to run their own operation
- Captive municipalities include 19 cities, 247 boroughs, 176 townships, 5 towns and 1 village
- Captive boroughs and townships may be freed only if either the populations reach the proper threshold or a mergers/reunifications with bordering townships/boroughs brings the population to the necessary threshold
- Cities and towns may considering merging with bordering townships and boroughs to form larger cities and towns as a means of avoiding captive status
- Regional Road Districts: lower population municipalities are required to dissolve street departments and thus hand over road maintenance to the counties. Likewise eight counties with lower populations have their engineering and road maintenance consolidated into three larger regions. In addition, all counties function as regions providing routine maintenance to the bulk of townships, boroughs, towns, cities and villages. In fact, all counties could form a single region operating as a statewide unit, but this approach combines county operations only in counties with lower population. Likewise, some or all counties could transfer their roads to NJDOT.
- Traffic Operations Cooperative Plan: middle population municipalities retain most authority to maintain their own roads, but maintenance of traffic control devices is consolidated to either the counties or to one of the three proposed regional highway districts
- Secondary State Roads: consideration is given to transfer maintenance responsibility for county-owned roads to NJDOT in either some or all counties. If all counties join with NJDOT, this would make the state highway system four times larger than it currently is as a means of streamlining county-level services and reducing local taxes.
- Two-Way Consolidated Road Maintenance Plan: some counties might maintain state-owned roads even if the county road system is effectively eliminated (or NJDOT begins maintaining county roads as part of an expanded state road network). NJDOT, however, will not be expected to take over routine maintenance on any county road system. It is just given as a potential option.
- The Local Exchange Plan: counties provide traffic control maintenance and traffic studies to higher population municipalities that operate independent of the state in turn for the municipality providing winter maintenance, summer mowing and street cleaning for the county where county-maintained roads fall within the municipality. This program could also be expedited by the state in lieu of the counties if the state takes over county roads and does not otherwise contract with the counties for those roads.