Monday, November 16, 2015

Statewide Contracting Plan Spotlight: Alabama

It is no secret that Alabama's road system is a mess, but it is not impossible to clean up.  After dropping "captive counties" as an option 35 years ago, most counties are struggling to maintain their own roads.  Roads around the state are rough, and road standards are well below where they need to be in far too many counties.  Quite a few reasons for this include:


  • A state with a low population for its size
  • Low revenues on a state level meaning inadequate funding for local agencies
  • Too few roads on the state highway system leaving counties and cities with a very large burden
  • A high percentage of the population unable to contribute significantly to the tax base due to local economic factors
  • Large municipalities absorbing much of the county tax base in more populous counties
  • A lack of interest by ALDOT in inspecting local practices


While the state has less than half the counties its neighbor to the east does, the state still has 39 counties with less than 50,000 residents.  25 of those are under 25,000 residents.  Out of 67 counties, 58% have low population density.  Overall, nearly 41% of Alabama's population lives in a rural area.  Furthermore, 60% of the counties are primarily rural with over 35% very rural.  On the hand, counties with larger populations are at a disadvantage due to unrestrained annexation by cities and towns further eroding the tax base so that these counties still do not have adequate resources to keep their roads in good repair.  The result is that these supposedly urbanized counties are ultimately on the same level as their more rural neighbors.

For instance, Madison County, despite its high population, has most of that population concentrated in its two largest cities.  Compare Madison County to Huntsville (based on 2010 census figures):

  • Madison County's raw population is 334,811: plenty high enough for high-quality services.  However,
  • Huntsville has 180,105
  • Madison (city) has 42,938
  • Madison County has one other city and three towns
  • The net unincorporated population is 106,140


Clearly the county is at a disadvantage in terms of tax base and services, thus the county is unable to enjoy the same level of road quality that the City of Huntsville has.  Furthermore, no efforts have been made to share any services between the cities and counties in most of the state.


Hurricane Road in unincorporated Madison County on the northeast side of Huntsville features a poorly marked road with only a curve sign marking a sharp curve (needing advisory) with an intersection in the middle of it.  Little effort has been made to bring Madison County roads to state standards and MUTCD compliance is a half-hearted effort, and much of that has to do with the fact that Huntsville, Madison and Madison County operate entirely separate road systems.  Does the county engineer not work for the county? (Photo from Google Street View, 2013)


In Huntsville City Limits, traffic engineering is much better with better signage, pavement markings and road design. This scene is on Bankhead Avenue westbound approaching Gaslight Way (Photo from Google Street View, 2013).

LOW STATE RESPONSIBILITY MEANS HIGHLY UNPREDICTABLE ROADS

Alabama also at present does not have many roads on the state highway system.  A present 10.7% of the road system is under state control constrained by a mileage cap of 11,000 miles.  Thus, it is not possible to efficiently travel across the state without using local roads.  Most of these local roads are poorly marked for navigation purposes with county route designations changing or disappearing at county lines, directional guide signs mostly non-existent, center lines are faded out and other traffic signs are sparsely or poorly maintained despite all counties having a county engineer and traffic control technician funded by the state.  To say the least there is a lack of well-rounded investment.

In addition, the division of responsibility between the municipalities in the counties has wreaked havoc on the ability to plan and maintain county routes.  Too many counties post county road numbers in place of street name signs.  Likewise, county routes do not travel into city limits.  Madison County years ago abolished its entire county route system likely due to the expansion of Huntsville, but shouldn't the city and county cooperate to keep certain routes signed both within and outside of the cities?  After all, cities in Alabama are still part of the county.  A typical trip in Alabama on a county road might have the following:


  • County route numbers might be posted on every road in one county, just some in another and none in another after that
  • Route numbers change over county lines
  • Many route numbers exist on paper, but they are posted nowhere in the field
  • Route numbers follow no logical system
  • Route numbers disappear in city limits on the same road even if it is an arterial or collector
  • How can someone plan to travel on a road system like that?


Road conditions are likewise poor on a large percentage of these roads.  Rough pavement and narrow lanes are both common.  Pavement condition in particular is very poor on rural roads across Alabama.  According to official statistics, 19% of Alabama's roads are in poor condition.  While there are counties that definitely do a better job, the quality is not consistent enough to demonstrate that local roads under their current structure have been effective, and structurally inefficiency is part of this problem.  In fact, ALDOT budgets over $6 million annually [warning: link opens PPT Document] to support the salaries of county engineers: approximately $91,000 per county.  Overall, the state budgets 20% of the state's budget to local programs.  Nevertheless, the process of maintaining local roads is far too political, and county engineers in most counties lack the power or funding necessary to assure that roads maintained by the local government are meeting the needs of their constituency.  While there are bright spots in a few more populous counties, the driving experience in Alabama is nothing short of inconsistent and uncomfortable.

At present, no requirement is in place for counties to meet state standards despite having county engineers and state-level funding.  Obviously with the road system underfunded, this is not prioritized.  The problem is that public safety is jeopardized when local agencies are allowed to cut corners on a road system that, combined with municipalities, covers almost 90% of the state's roads.  Safety improvements are something a statewide agency would do a better job with much in the way the state did a much better job on the captive county roads before the system was dismantled.  It is essentially a by-product of sharing that responsibility among many jurisdictions over the entire state.


Pleasant Hill Road approaching Reno Hill Road in Walker County.  This road is designated a minor collector, but it is in terrible condition.  Roads in many counties of the state are not well-maintained at all, and it is unclear if counties statewide are allowed to raise additional revenues independent of state sources.  Statewide, 19% of Alabama's roads are in poor condition, and part of this is due to an inefficient and highly political maintenance structure.

Oddly enough, any plan for improving county and municipal roads in Alabama will need to consider removing ALDOT from the process as much as possible.  This is because since the turnback of the Captive County network, the state has had no interest in direct responsibility for county roads.  While the state may consider taking on a few more roads in the future, it will not be enough roads to be effective.  In addition, the structure of county road agencies, large counties and sparsely populated geography would make regional road agreements more difficult to execute.  Furthermore, the concept of local governments working together as compact regions on anything is a pretty foreign concept to residents of a state with a well-documented history of political strife.  Since ALDOT maintenance of county roads is no longer on the table, something else should be considered.  This is where the Statewide Cooperative Plan would do wonders.

THE BEST APPROACH FOR ALABAMA

What is clear when driving across the state is that county and municipal governments are wildly inconsistent.  It is not just an issue of different standards.  It is also evidence of a clear lack of coordination among the county engineers association to:

  1. Share resources with other counties, cities or ALDOT
  2. Develop statewide standards for all county roads and municipal streets
  3. Too much local politics involved in routine maintenance
  4. Too much political fragmentation spreading resources too thin
  5. All of this coupled with sparse local funding and state funding making county funding for road maintenance difficult  

In 1985, a plan was presented in the legislature to combine all rural county road systems under the umbrella of the state DOT to attempt to duplicate the uniformity in standards that the Captive Counties had a few years prior.  Despite a heavy push from two state legislators, nothing came of that plan as counties resisted state control for road projects and ALDOT did not wish to again pursue such agreements.  Unlike their neighbors in Tennessee, the state has also not made any effort to expand the state highway system to relieve local governments of thousands of miles of federal-aid eligible roadways that are beyond the financial and technical abilities of the counties thus making travel difficult across the state.  Alabama also once had a farm-to-market route system as well, but it was basically a statewide plan for numbering designations along county roads and not actually a separate system.  Most of that was also dismantled after the Captive County systems were dissolved in 1979 and 1980.

The new approach that should happen is that the state legislature should broker a plan to unify road maintenance across the state into a single statewide agency.  This agency will be a hybrid of two options presented in the Statewide Contracting Plan.  This hybrid will be as follows:

  • The state legislature will organize a statewide agency to provide routine maintenance and assist in oversight of capital projects on county-owned roads and municipal streets
    • The state will transfer all county engineers and traffic operations specialists to this new agency away from the counties
    • State funding will continue to finance these employees, and state funding will be available, but only if the counties and municipalities are willing to participate
    • The new cooperative agency could be required for counties and towns in order to have access to state-level employees, but optional for cities
    • Counties and municipalities who do not participate will no longer have a state-funded county engineer or traffic operations specialist
  • This new agency will become a cooperative owned jointly by all participating counties, cities and towns across the state 

Their responsibilities will be as follows:

  1. All routine road maintenance in rural counties will be the responsibility of the statewide cooperative.
  2. All routine road maintenance in the cities and towns of rural counties must also be the responsibility of the cooperative.
  3. Urbanized counties, cities and towns will only be required to contract with the cooperative for maintenance of specifically designated farm-to-market roads
    • Urbanized counties, cities and towns may voluntarily transfer routine maintenance of all roads under their jurisdiction to the cooperative
  4. Traffic control devices other than street name signs will be installed, furnished and maintained by the cooperative for all county roads and all city streets regardless of whether they are urban or rural.
  5. After the cooperative road system is established, the cooperative will also be contracted for routine maintenance of surface state routes 
    • ALDOT will remain responsible for expressways, freeways and interstates on the state highway system.
    • Placing the cooperative in charge of state roads creates a situation of reverse contracting having local-level maintenance of state roads creating similar economies of scale as those that once existed in the captive counties
    • Doing this will also result in state payments to the cooperative allowing the cooperative agency to produce far more results due to better funding and streamlining of non-fixed costs
  6. Capital projects remain local responsibility regardless of maintenance responsibility

FUNDING OF THE COOPERATIVE SYSTEM DEFINED

At this point, funding on a state level is going to the local level is pretty sparse for this program, although the state government will relieve the counties of the cost of engineers and traffic operations meaning that operations costs will be largely relieved on a local level.  That is part of the reason that a farm-to-market plan might not be successful in most of Alabama, because the county governments across the state are simply too poor to divide costs between a farm-to-market system and their own county roads except in the most populous counties, and cities will have to be willing to partner for these roads.  Therefore, the general idea is to create a system where costs, employees, equipment, facilities and engineering is shared mutually among all counties and most municipalities across the state with all roads maintained by the cooperative in rural counties and only major county roads and municipal streets in high population counties.  While divisions comparable to state DOT districts may be created, the overall agency should operate as a single statewide agency.

Funding of the cooperative system is a joint operation.  The state will reserve a ratio of state funding for operations costs ranging from 1-5% with the rest still going to the counties as today.  The difference will be is that each partner agency provides a retainer for use in each county they administer.  This way, local projects stay local while oversight is transferred to a new statewide unit working independent of ALDOT for the benefit of the counties.  State taxes will not need to be increased to make this work.  This retainer is the local funding match, and no work can be done on a local level without it.  Preferably, the retainer should be set based on a budget agreed on by all counties in a given year where the county or municipality funds their part based on the population ratio divided by the budget.  Thus, if the cooperative budgets $50 million in 2018 for maintenance, $1,091,234 will be the funding match required from Madison County.  If there is no agreement on a mutual budget, then each county will just pay in what they can that year.  Thus, if Madison can only pay in $500,000 that is all that the cooperative will have to work with in Madison County.

If the funding to the cooperative is sparse, this is on purpose.  The idea is to only provide enough for routine maintenance, because planning and major construction is supposed to remain under exclusive authority of the local agencies unless they deliberately choose to hand that responsibility to the co-op.  Counties would still receive the majority of state-aid directly from the state and local funds would still be available to fund capital improvements on their own as they have always done.  The new cooperative is primarily designed to pool resources to improve efficiency and provide better supervision of county and municipal road maintenance, although capital projects may be supervised by the cooperative at the local agency's discretion.  Thus, local control is retained for planning purposes, but professionalism similar to ALDOT is brought to a local level.

EMPLOYMENT

Just like if the state again created captive counties, nobody gets fired due to consolidation.  All state-level county engineers and technicians transfer to the cooperative and all county-level employees along with their equipment and facilities will transfer into the hands of the cooperative.  However, attrition may be used if it turns out there are more employees than needed thus allowing the force needed to dwindle to natural levels for a consolidated workload.

OTHER POTENTIAL FUNDING SOURCES

If necessary, a new statewide fee should be established to fund the cooperative so that the agency is not entirely dependent on local governments to fund limited maintenance and basic operations.  This fee should be a $5 charge per motorist or per vehicle that will help fund operations and maintenance with funds spent per county based on population ratio.  According to the FHWA 2013 statistics, Alabama has:


By these numbers, $5 can heavily fund the cooperative.  The resulting funds that can be raised include:

  • $23,936,095 from tag fees
  • $19,297,015 per motorist

Consider what that would fund per county.  For instance, consider that the average rural county has a population of just over 39,000 residents.  The closest to that population is Escambia County with a population of 38,319.  With the county population divided by the state population:

  • The ratio that the county would receive is 0.8% of that fund
  • Based on tag fees, that comes out to $189,139 per county
  • Based on registered motorists, that comes out to $152,481 per county

In other words, with maintenance handled by the cooperative and a dedicated fund for maintenance coming from a small statewide fee, the counties are free to spend more of their limited funds for more capital projects and less for overhead costs associated with maintaining roads.  Additionally, a lack of ALDOT responsibility does not mean that there will be any significant difference between state-owned and locally-owned roads.

REORGANIZATION OF THE COUNTY HIGHWAY AGENCIES

The role the state currently plays with county agencies has not worked, and it is unfortunate.  The way it is currently structured, ALDOT pays for three employees for the counties including a county engineer and traffic control technician.  Problem is, that has done nothing to promote uniformity or compliance with state standards on a local level.  In fact, many counties have heavily stripped power away from these state officials on a local level given that there already is a conflict of interest between the state-funded employees and the local officials who have their own ideas on how to run the road system.  Local agencies are not typically knowledgeable about engineering standards and best practices, thus they should not be directly supervising road maintenance.  Unfortunately, because ALDOT got out of the county road maintenance business that state oversight has been abolished.  The new cooperative plan, however, allows this function to be centralized as a joint venture of the local governments instead of a separate state agency who may or may not have the counties best interests in mind.  Local control is thus reserved where it is most beneficial while centralized authority handles the day-to-day maintenance activities and restores best engineering practices to local roads.



Maintenance of traffic signs is a half-hearted effort across Cullman County.  While they are maintained, they are nowhere near the level that they were when they were a "captive county" prior to 1979.  This non-standard advisory speed sign appears to be in an 18" x 12" blank (standard is 18" x 18") in the first photo.  A curve marked further west (second photo) had worn out chevrons spaced much too far apart.  Only one was even visible westbound (two are required).  These issues come from a roadway system structure that is far too decentralized with no real accountability.  [Photos from Google Street View, June 2014]

FARM-TO-MARKET ROADS DEFINED AS PART OF THIS PLAN

Farm-To-Market Roads should be defined as a class of highways that are principal thoroughfares not on the state highway system.  These roads would thus primarily consist of roadways designated arterial or major collector that remain under control of the local agencies.  Additional mileage comes through minor collector roads and better constructed functionally local roads that serve in a similar function to collector roads due to access they provide to unincorporated communities, parks, government facilities and bodies of water.  In general, the farm-to-market system mileage should be set at a ratio so that when added together with state highway mileage comprises 25-35% of the road system.

In this plan, farm-to-market roads as a literal function apply only to urbanized counties, cities and towns that do not contract all road maintenance to the cooperative.  While they will likely retain a separate local road system, they will still have some roads transferred to maintenance supervision of the statewide cooperative thus the farm-to-market definition.  This division of responsibility will allow cooperative authorities to be used for maintenance of the more important farm-to-market roads as a statewide responsibility along with a limited selection of other roadways remaining local responsibility.  Using the cooperative for those roads will also make the distribution of federal-aid funding more efficient.

It should also be noted that unlike Georgia, ALDOT does not maintain nearly as many federal-aid eligible roads.  The amount of federal-aid eligible roads not maintained by ALDOT excluding minor collectors is around 15,000 miles and with minor collectors rises to 22,000 miles.  This means counties, cities and towns are very much on the hook for major roads lacking the budgets to cover those roads adequately in terms of safety improvements.  This means that up to 21% of the entire highway system is definitely not local in nature with less than half of federal-aid eligible roads under state control.

In rural counties who contract all routine road maintenance to the cooperative, farm-to-market roads will still be defined by the described functional classifications and will be assigned as county routes.  In other words, the county route system that currently is different in every county will be replaced with a statewide system of farm-to-market roads.  These farm-to-market roads, however, should all be renumbered to a new numbering system that functions as an expansion of the state highway system.



In the early 1970's, the state had a special system of county highways that continued with the same number into multiple counties and had a uniform structure.  During the 1980's and 1990's, after the triangle route sign was phased out for the blue pentagon, counties began either eliminating county route markers entirely (such as in Madison County) or coming up with their own numbering systems.  The current system is a useless mess where some counties have a number for every road with illogical designations.  Compare 1970 to 1999 where, for instance, CR 55 once traveled from Falkville to Holly Pond going through both Morgan and Cullman Counties.  Today the number changes to 1527 and 1669 in Cullman County just because that county wanted its own numbering system.  This needs to be either backtracked to what was originally established statewide or completely renumbered statewide through a new farm-to-market numbering system.  If route signs like this were better regulated and state-funded, this would once again be possible (Source: AHD/ALDOT Maps from 1970 and 1999).


Methods to define and establish a renewed farm-to-market numbering system are described below.  Option 1 works with the existing numbering scheme and option 2 overhauls it with an entirely new system.

Option 1: Single-County Link Node:

  • Federal-aid eligible roads and non-federal-aid minor collectors are numbered 1-199 in each county with routes numbered over 100 only when available numbers run out.
  • County route numbers must be continuous across county lines if the roadway does not otherwise change
  • Numbers may repeat in every county so that every county road number is original to each county
  • Numbers must not be used for county roads that are also used for a state, US or interstate highway in the county
    • If AL 54, US 72 and/or I-65 exists in the county, then CR 54, 72 and 65 in that county
  • Note that this option generally retains the original farm-to-market route number designations in the counties that still use them meaning that numbers only change if they do not follow the original patterns or need to be redefined for longer routes
  • Functionally local farm-to-market roads should be numbered 200-399 if not part of a longer route with federal-aid eligible portions
  • If maintained by the cooperative, other county/municipal roads numbered 400 and above should marked with a low-profile route marker similar to a street name sign (county route signs removed from these roads)
  • If maintained by the local agency, other county/municipal roads should be named instead of numbered



The above illustration is an example of a low-profile county road marker for less important county roads not part of the farm-to-market system where in this case the county road travels in both directions at a junction with another county road.  The alphabetical county number (24) is included for Dallas County because the road is maintained in a single system in conjunction with many other counties in the statewide cooperative, but it is not entirely necessary.  "C" means the road is still under county ownership and is not otherwise under state responsibility.  However, the road number still refers to Dallas CR 548.

Option 2: Other Highways

  • Federal-aid eligible roads and non-federal-aid minor collectors would be numbered 300-999
  • This could be arranged at random or in clusters statewide with 300 series in the NW corner and 800 series in the SE corner with major highways dividing the clusters and 900 series used for old alignments (repeating segments) and "wild card" routes
  • County route numbers must be continuous across county lines if the roadway does not otherwise change
  • Numbers may repeat across the state if the maximum is reached, but not within the same ALDOT district
  • This option requires a complete renumbering of county roads statewide.  
    • In cases where original farm-to-market designations are used, typically 500 is added to the existing number so that CR 35 becomes FM 535 and CR 127 becomes FM 627 if that same number is not used elsewhere unrelated within the ALDOT district.
  • Functionally local farm-to-market roads would be numbered 1000-1499
  • If maintained by the cooperative, other county/municipal roads numbered 1500 and above should be marked with a low-profile route marker similar to a street name sign (county route signs removed from these roads)
  • If maintained by the local agency, other county/municipal roads should be named instead of numbered

Farm-to-market roads would all be numbered with a county pentagon since they would still be county-owned.  However, what would change is that farm-to-market roads would also be posted within city or town limits since they would only be assigned to certain roads.  If the farm-to-market designations falls completely within a city or town and/or space is restricted in a high density urban area, a low-profile route marker may be used.  Low-profile route markers may not be used along or at the junction of two designated farm-to-market routes (999 or below).

The importance in organizing the farm-to-market system is to provide suitable local alternatives to state highways.  With so few state roads in Alabama, the need to use county roads for more than local traffic is frequent.  By having a uniform scheme across the state with the cooperative making sure that signage is consistent these roads can serve properly as farm-to-market roads as they were once designed.

WHY THE STATEWIDE COOPERATIVE PLAN IS THE BEST APPROACH IN ALABAMA

Alabama's road system is ideally structured for local control, but that does not mean it is working well within that structure.  With low population, little interagency cooperation and low tax revenues, decentralization has not been an effective tool in assuring that road maintenance standards are consistent statewide.  Instead of making direct payments to counties, the state or the counties should instead redistribute funding into a central cooperative agency that combines routine maintenance functions into a single unit while allowing local agencies to preserve financial authority for capital improvements.  With the state matching those funds up to 5%, this will mean that the state will cover administrative costs of the statewide agency with local agencies otherwise using their own resources to make it work.  This joint ownership structure make uniform, higher standards possible on all local roads statewide without ALDOT's help while still allowing greater local control within a centralized structure.

The cooperative agency is set up with a hybrid model that centralizes routine maintenance and engineering responsibilities into a single statewide agency while keeping construction responsibility on a local level.  It is thus a separate state agency that is owned jointly by the 67 counties that is better able to manage the majority of issues that are not otherwise corrected on a local level.  However, some of the more populous counties would be able to maintain a split system with cooperative-managed farm-to-market roads and county-managed smaller roads and streets.

As part of this plan, the highway system should also be reorganized to correct the failure of the previous farm-to-market road system.  If authority for maintenance is centralized, then naturally the highway system should also be laid out in a manner that reflects this so that the roadways not state owned are easier to follow and are easier to manage for cooperative authorities.  The goal of this is to create the best of both worlds as a means of saving resources and raising standards on all local roads regardless of state funding issues.  With the hybrid concept, a manageable cost is required to fund administrative and maintenance costs when the local agencies remain entrusted to continue paving and improving the roads otherwise.  It is a win-win allowing a more flexible system than either the current decentralized approach or the state DOT-administered approach used in the former Captive Counties.

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