In two other states, Alabama and Maryland, full state control of local roads existed limited to only certain counties. Called "captive counties", the term "captive county" was invented by Alabama in the 1950's to describe counties who were "captive" to the state for road maintenance since they not only did not have their own county road departments, but also handed ownership to the state for a time. Other counties were "free" to maintain their road systems as they saw fit, but that freedom certainly meant lower overall maintenance standards than those found in those captive counties. In the nearly 25 years Alabama ran a separate state-administered system in 10 of the state's 67 counties, it was plagued with problems due to inadequate state-level funding, too many restrictions placed on captive counties and cheaply-constructed tar and gravel pavement that was not holding up well. Unfortunately, local officials grew impatient with this approach. In both states, the political atmosphere turned sour for these special arrangements. As a result, both states revoked the rights of these counties to use state forces on county roads: Alabama in 1979 and Maryland in 1984. Thus, the counties were "freed", but were they really better off?
Today, few states have any laws in place that allow such agreements. Two separate reasons exist for that: the first are state DOT's themselves that do not want any additional liability or responsibility for county roads and have completely refused to offer any assistance to local governments even if the local agencies are willing to pay. The second are "small government" conservatives coming primarily from large suburban counties who dominate most state governments. Their view is that local responsibility should have no interference from state government, and they reach that perspective from driving roads in well-funded suburban areas that do not represent the state as a whole. In addition, these suburban politicians see state control of local roads as nothing more than a welfare system for rural counties robbing needed road funding for road projects in high traffic areas just to maintain lightly traveled back roads. That argument sounds plausible in theory, but the reality is that rural roads are substandard and dangerous, because they lack the oversight, staff and economies of scale needed to bring them to levels comparable with state-owned roads. In other words, local control amplifies local poverty with road quality directly correlating to population and income. Having a larger state agency handle rural county roads does not mean that these rural counties are paid more. It just means that they can do far more with less when expenses are shared with larger, better financed and better structured agencies.
Perhaps the notion of state control of county roads is an antiquated concept, but that does not mean that a partitioned, less centralized version of it could not work if the criteria were changed to not only limit state DOT involvement but also divide financial responsibilities so that the DOT was not in charge in doling out funds for county-level roads. While most local issues can generally be corrected incrementally (through roadway projects), some things do require continual oversight and shared expenses in terms of road maintenance to assure that consistency, quality and high standards can be achieved.
What few programs exist today are quite rare, and this is odd considering that America's population is concentrating in larger cities while rural areas continue to lose their jobs, population and tax base. Sure state-aid is always available, but that pretty much means that instead of continuous maintenance in a poor, rural county you have adequate maintenance only occurring when the state periodically cuts a state-aid check. Not much else is being done, and these less populated areas need a bit more help than spot treatments.
Aside from the controversial "state control" states, only two states have any known programs to offer state contracting services that exclude full ownership: Virginia and Utah. Virginia allows towns with populations less than 2,500 to use state forces to maintain their streets making their town networks "captive" and Utah also offers a similar program for municipalities. Montana and Washington State both had a few state-maintained county road systems at certain points, but both have long since turned these systems back to the counties even if state law still allows those arrangements. Washington State still allows this option, but does not appear to have had any counties actively contracting with the state for maintenance since about 1991. Furthermore, Montana appears to have abolished the last of such arrangements within the past 15 years after the state took full control of their farm-to-market highway system.
The state having a role in county roads is a relic of the "Good Roads Movement" where giving counties the option of using state forces for road maintenance was presented as a less oppressive version of the North Carolina Plan. The counties that were "captive" ultimately enjoyed this arrangement due to the tremendous cost savings and overall higher standards, but in later years the state DOT's did not like the added responsibility while the counties did not like the lack of flexibility if they felt like roads were not being repaired and upgraded as fast as they thought they should be. The latter issue continues to threaten Virginia's secondary road system to this day where local agencies still have very limited powers in regards to financial power to take on major road improvements while the state backlog for secondary road upgrades remains enormous. This state role was also coupled with suspicion about how funding was spent in relation to free counties and/or other areas of the state. In the case of Alabama, less funding was available for road maintenance in captive counties and counties really had no say in how it was spent. In Virginia, a popular argument for a return to local control is that Richmond is diverting money to rural areas at the expense of urban transportation needs. In Alabama, this situation could have been remedied and corrected, but the desire for local control won because the counties wanted the roads repaved and wanted it done right then.
Nevertheless, these state arrangements should not have been eliminated since counties and municipalities are still very unreliable on their commitment to properly maintain roads and are still known to occasionally mismanage funds. When these captive counties took these roads back, they did not all get repaved nor are they in particularly good condition today. What was a result of cheap road construction became a political issue pitting captive counties against free counties, but the resulting county roads were not exactly the vast improvement their proponents envisioned: quite the contrary, in fact. Overall, the need for state involvement did not go away just because the states got out of the mood.
The history of state involvement in local control was described in depth for a reason: to point out the need to reform instead of elimination of state involvement with local roads. For one, most cases where a statewide agency is involved should be handled through a contracting method instead of allowing the state DOT to completely withhold state-aid funds to use for local road maintenance. Roads should likewise remain county-owned to make counties eligible for state and federal funds and protect local interests with statewide forces simply used to replace county/municipal forces. Thus, the primary purpose of functional consolidation is to provide engineering, minor roadway repairs, keep the roads safe for travel and administer traffic control services. In other words, local services contracted to the state must be very limited in scope to be effective. In essense, this plan is similar to the Farm-To-Market Cooperative Plan except for the fact that it is not mileage-based and is structured differently. The entire agency essentially contracts their entire routine maintenance services to a statewide agency in lieu of using their own forces. Also note the use of the term "statewide agency" instead of "state agency". This is a very important distinction that will be further detailed as part of this new approach.
New Ground Rules for Statewide Maintenance Contracts
The gist of this plan is that local agencies have an option to exit the road maintenance business if and only if they meet these conditions:
- Primary construction responsibility remains with the local agency
- The statewide agency is only responsible for routine maintenance, engineering and traffic control
- Contract agencies are treated by the state DOT or statewide agency as "local roads", thus funding for all state-level work must come from local authorities unless a special fund is set aside on a state level for this purpose
- Any additional funding beyond the set aside amount must come from local authorities
- Planning remains with local agencies unless road project is treated as a state highway project
- Ownership of the roadway remains with the local agency, but routine maintenance responsibility is legally bound to the statewide agency who is contracted to maintain those roads meaning that the local agency must either use the agency or a contractor to complete any road improvement project
- Contract cannot be an informal "gentleman's agreement". Agreement must be in-writing and legally binding
- If a cooperative agreement is not offered and operated statewide, it is not considered a statewide contract and instead falls under the scope of regional roads (discussed in detail in the Regional Roads Plan)
- Contracts should require a minimum threshold of participating local agencies to maximize efficiency for the contracting agency if not contracted with state DOT
The last clause in this list is directly attributed to the new approaches described above. This is there essentially because this updated version of the state contracting plan does not include the state DOT. Unlike in the past, this new version of the plan is for a statewide agency that may or may not actually be a state agency. The idea is to create a maintenance unit that shares costs among many counties, cities and towns instead of requiring the state to expand their own maintenance to the local level thus keeping the two agencies separate. After explaining the options, the issues with DOT control will be discussed and why this option should be taken off the table except in states that already have this structure in place.
- State-Operated Local Road Maintenance Agency
- Interagency Local Roads Cooperative
- Statewide Rural Local Road Maintenance Agency
State-Operated Local Road Maintenance Agency
By having the separate agency authorized by the state legislature, the state legislature can portion funding away from the state DOT and/or create a special fund to finance operations and maintenance of a statewide local highway agency. Funding could come from either state highway funds, local funds or a special fund. In the states where a portion of state highway funds are distributed directly to local agencies, the local agency will be permitted to have a percentage of those funds held back to have permission to transfer responsibility to the statewide routine maintenance while keeping the rest to finance local construction projects. The percentage will be equitable for all jurisdictions based on a formula of road mileage, lane mileage and/or population. In states that do not have this option, the funding will need to come from:
- A special statewide funding source (such as an ad valorem fee, sales tax or a set proportion of the gas tax).
- A portion of state-aid road funding set aside by the legislature distributed expressly from the legislature to the statewide local road agency with the state DOT receiving funding separately
- Local agencies who opt out will receive an equivalent payment to that local agency in lieu of the statewide agency keeping that money to use in that county or municipality
- Payments directly from local agencies
- Any combination of the above
To give a clue of how these function, the names would be something like:
- "Alabama Department of Secondary Highways"
- "Colorado County Road Maintenance Division"
- "Connecticut Consolidated Township Road Commission" or
- "Oregon Local Highways Administration"
All of these names are designed to indicate that it is a state agency whose purpose it to oversee engineering and routine maintenance of roadways whose primary ownership, function and major construction responsibility is local.
If this option is chosen, it would include a board like the state DOT that would include members of all participating local agencies. Officers would be chosen by internal vote.
If state laws forbid the creation of a statewide agency that is not under the arm of state government, then those laws would likely have to be changed on a state level meaning that such a cooperative may be nearly impossible to create in some states. Most likely for such a cooperative to even exist, at least 75% of a state's counties and municipalities would have to participate. Also, clusters of counties and municipalities would have to be close enough together to make it cost efficient to provide those services. If one county is part of a cooperative with 100 miles to the nearest cluster it might not be worthwhile for that local agency to join. Thus, the formation of a cooperative would require a drive and successful pitch to get most counties and municipalities to join.
Every local agency that joins the statewide cooperative must transfer funding and existing employees into the cooperative meaning that each jurisdiction involved pays into the system. Essentially, at the start the local agency pays the agreed funding ratio (which is updated annually) and incurs any additional costs for transferred employees which will eventually be pared down through attrition. Obviously the cooperative must also have a government structure that is highly accountable. Officers of the cooperative would have to be elected to assure that they were following through with their duties and using the public's money prudently. In addition, a board would need to be created where every local agency who participates is a member with a vote similar to how EMC's work. All local agencies are part-owners of the system with a voice in the process.
While the cooperative would administer road maintenance duties to all participating local agencies, planning and construction would remain a local matter with state-aid and local funds staying with the local agency. However, as a duty to all members a local agency who lacks the resources to handle planning or construction activities could entrust the cooperative to handle this for them.
Examples of potential names could be similar to the above, but may include the words "consolidated" or "cooperative" such as "Indiana Local Highways Cooperative", "Vermont Township Roads Cooperative" or "Missouri Consolidated County Highway Authority".
In this version of the plan, rural participation is not voluntary. The state government mandates cooperative agreements either brokered on a local or on a state level, but rural areas are dealt with as a statewide unit while urban areas are treated as their own regions. This way, all areas of the state are adequately covered while regional road districts will not be required to expand to cover areas outside of the defined metropolitan statistical area. However, for this plan to work effectively low population MSA regions will need to fall under the rural local road maintenance agency with MSA's that operate separately limited to regions that meet at least the population threshold of 300,000 residents required in the Regional Roads Plan. Note that the pure form of the Regional Roads Plan is based on the federally-funded regional planning commissions NOT metropolitan statistical areas. This method only works when all rural roads are administered by a statewide cooperative.
Commingling of funds on a state level is a very real problem, and is a likely reason why state control of local roads has not been a popular option in most states. State funding ratios are not always fair or reasonable, and a state having primary responsibility for local roads while maintaining major highways is going to have a difficult time prioritizing which system to spend the most funding on. In other words, accountability on how that funding is spent and how much actually goes to secondary road maintenance is difficult to quantify. There is no guarantee that an adequate sum is being spent on secondary funds if, for instance, the state wants to prioritize large road projects, the state DOT decides to make a high population area a "donor" to a specific area of the state or the state is not efficiently using public funding.
In fact, even if the state DOT is chosen as the party that local governments are permitted to contract with, at no point has any plan discussed here ever given full control to the state. From limited duties under the Cooperative Farm-To-Market Plan freeing local governments to plan and fund their own road projects to this plan where a local agency pays the state on their own terms as a contractor, the idea is that local consent is an important aspect of every plan. Even if local agencies lose some responsibility, they will never completely lose control of their own roads.
Lastly, while normalizing resources has clear benefits, consolidation does not mean that one agency has to handle both primary highways and local-level roads. The two systems can both be consolidated separately under different ownership models. While full local control is a regressive method, some local control is essential to maintain a balance. The state DOT should be free to prioritize major highways, but the difference on a local level is that priority for local roads still requires a cooperative effort to achieve comparable results to the state. The differences is that cooperation does not necessarily require the state DOT to be involved.
A statewide local agency is designed to handle only limited responsibilities directly with additional activities financed directly by the county or municipality only to be completed per instructions on behalf of the financing local agency. The list below is not exhaustive and may have left out some important duties. The general rule of thumb is that if it involves a larger construction project, it is a local duty and if it is a routine maintenance duty it is handled by the statewide local agency.
Duties that would be expected in the statewide local roads agency include:
- Traffic engineering services
- developing maintenance standards
- supervising road maintenance
- supervise and execute road projects financed through state-aid or federal funds
- design smaller road projects or provide planning services if requested and funded by local or state agency
- Traffic operations services
- develop agency-wide or statewide standards for use on entire local system
- conduct traffic studies
- planning and oversight of traffic signs
- centralize purchasing
- centralize production of guide signs and other special signs
- planning, installation and maintenance of traffic signals
- planning, installation and maintenance of pavement markings
- planning, installation and maintenance of guardrails
- supervision of sign and signal maintenance crews
- Minor bridge repairs (inspection should be handled by state DOT)
- Pothole patching and other spot asphalt repairs
- Street cleaning
- Summer mowing and brush cutting
- Winter salting and plowing
- Minor drainage repairs
- Emergency slope repair
- If costly, repairs may require federal, state-aid or local funding from the affected jurisdiction(s)
- Other maintenance duties otherwise assigned by local agency
- Any other duties not defined must be fully funded by local agency and completed for local agency on their behalf
- Local agency may seek damages for work not completed to satisfactory standards or for misused funds if local agency entrusts statewide agency to handle a local roadway improvement
Duties that would remain under local authority (unless the local authority gives specific consent otherwise) include:
- Develop construction standards and policies
- not to be confused with maintenance standards, which are the duty of the statewide agency
- may be coordinated with statewide local roads agency if desired
- may be different than statewide standards, but must be in substantially in compliance with state standards
- statewide agency will have no authority in regards to road standards through designated historic districts other than traffic control
- road projects and improvements typically will be financed and planned on a local level
- local agency may consent to allow planning to be handled by statewide agency
- statewide agency may make recommendations to local agency, but action will not be required
- Major roadway resurfacing
- must come from state-aid or local funding
- should not typically be a financial responsibility of statewide local agency
- supervise and execute road projects financed through state-aid or federal funds
- funding must come from state-aid or local funding; statewide local agency may not use funding for this purpose
- major construction is not responsibility of statewide agency
- local agency not required to use statewide agency for any construction work not defined as routine maintenance
- Roadway acceptance
- The statewide local agency will not be involved in accepting roads into the public roadway system
- Local agencies will be responsible for bringing private roadways into standards to be accepted into the system including hiring contractors if they do not have their own road agency
- the statewide agency is contracted only for maintenance
- choosing a contractor to complete a roadway project will be up to local discretion
- if local agency lacks crews, work may be entrusted to either a private contractor or the statewide agency at the discretion of the local agency
POPULATION AND JURISDICTIONAL THRESHOLDS
For all parts of this plan to work, the method of transfer of responsibility from the local agencies to a statewide agency must be correctly applied. If only three counties in a state from far corners of a large state participate in a statewide system that is not administered by the state DOT, for instance, a statewide system will obviously not be possible. If that state, however, is Delaware, then obviously it would work.
While some activities may be centralized on a state level to handle on a few counties such as traffic engineering or traffic control, the benefit of doing so is negligible. At minimum, participation should have a collective population of 300,000 people and preferably 1 million people should be represented at the least. This means that voluntary participation in a cooperative of local agencies should be limited to allow only a certain percentage of counties and/or municipalities to opt out with counties placed under more stringent terms in most states and townships in the Northeast.
In the Farm-To-Market Cooperative Plan, all local agencies are required to participate but full local control is retained for most roads. With this plan, entire road systems will transfer requiring that most local agencies will not actually maintain any roads. Thus, a minimum threshold must be established to assure that those goals are met. Those include three options:
- Participation ratio: 75% of a state's counties must transfer road maintenance responsibility to a statewide agency or join a statewide cooperative.
- this ratio has nothing to do with population or involvement by municipalities
- most urbanized counties are likely to opt out anyway meaning that participation would largely be rural
- the preferred way of handling a statewide interagency cooperative
- the easiest to institute since participation rates use a simple calculation counting all counties as a single unit
- generally counties under a population of 50,000 should be required to participate
- townships should generally be required to participate if their population is less than 25,000 residents
- cities/towns under a population of 5,000 should be required to participate if under a contract county
- under this threshold, population may include less than 25% of state's population but the vast majority of counties and land area
- required in the rural local road maintenance option
- more difficult to institute since rules are more complex
- ratios are arbitrary, but in this case they are based on an observed threshold that local agencies need to operate at acceptable service levels
- required local participation adds up to the percentage of state population living in rural areas to which further participation becomes voluntary
- e.g. if 75% of the state's population lives in urban areas and 25% in rural areas, then the population threshold should be set at 25%
- no consistent ratio can be established for every state since urbanized ratios are not the same in every state
- when the ratio is established, counties populations are added up from the lowest population to highest population county with the required threshold cut off when that number is met
- this is an alternative method of determining the counties required in the rural local road maintenance option
While all three methods have merits, the preferred method is the participation ratio because it is the most stable approach with the simplest method. All three methods are, however, designed with the expectation that the highest population counties will likely opt out without denying other counties the option of joining. It also comes with the expectation that most rural counties will eventually join without requiring them to do so. Under the participation ratio, the consolidated road system will not be established until 75% of the counties (or townships in New England) agree to join. Any county, city or town can then voluntarily join above that threshold. This would also be especially effective in New England where population thresholds are not an effective means of determining the necessary ratio. In contrast, the local population threshold basically requires that all rural counties or townships participate while opting out high population counties. While also a good idea, it may create a new battle in the urban vs. rural divide if the rural counties feel that they are unfairly forced into a system due to what they may view as an arbitrary threshold.
The chart above lays out a base plan in how population thresholds should be used to determine the correct agency responsible for road maintenance. Under this method, certain population thresholds must be met for a county or municipality to gain authority to maintain their own road networks without contracting routine maintenance to a state agency or cooperative. Additional conditions are placed on municipalities that have sufficient populations yet fall in counties whose population is not likewise sufficient.
WHY STATEWIDE CONTRACTING IS AN IDEAL PLAN
Updating the "North Carolina Plan" has been our major concern, because the system as it is designed is in danger of collapse. With state priorities shifting across the country away from lower volume roads, this plan could eventually be a safety net for not only those local agencies who do not want to take on added road responsibilities but also for local governments who cannot afford to adequately maintain their own roads in other states that presently have no other option. While the Regional Roads Plan offers some similar benefits, concerns exist in terms of establishing government agencies that do not match up with physical boundaries. This plan defines those boundaries as the entire state treating the state like one big county. In other words, consolidating local roadway networks on a statewide level under certain conditions does not require that the state DOT is the responsible party, and that realization presents a unique opportunity.
If local agencies want a better way, then it is up to them to pursue it. The best way to do that is to pursue it themselves instead of waiting on the state to make that decision for them. In South Carolina at least, that decision has unfortunately almost been made for them by the cheapskate legislature: more responsibility for them and less for the state with uncertain funding. This new plan effectively divorces state DOT control of local roads while still creating a statewide maintenance structure capable of providing equivalent service to those same local agencies so that the state DOT cannot divert funding away subsequently forcing small local agencies to take on that full responsibility.
Imagine a road system where local agencies pool resources to a statewide agency to drive down the cost of road maintenance while bringing up the standards on all of those roads to the same level as if the state did it themselves. It would be the best of both worlds for all participating local agencies without any of those agencies being forced to cooperate with a state DOT. Three options were presented for this. The first two were a new state agency created with the express purpose of overseeing local road maintenance and a statewide interagency cooperative where most local agencies join forces to share funding and responsibility for road maintenance. The last option combines the first two options with the Regional Roads Plan. It creates a rural statewide road agency of either type with regional road districts defined in larger metropolitan areas.
The failure of "captive county" systems in the past had much to do with issues of transparency due to states being entrusted to handle the entire portion of state road funding normally going to the local level. Seeing the huge difference in road standards led free counties to suspect that captive counties were getting special treatment from the state while captive counties were worried that they were being cheated by the state. This is why this plan is designed differently by not only limiting the responsibilities of the centralized agency but also specializing their function to handle only lower classification roads. Centralization efforts in the 21st century cannot have a "Soviet" feel to them. They must be cooperative in nature allowing the needs and goals of both sides to be met while streamlining costs and processes. This is possible when counties and municipalities work together rather than simply handing over responsibility to an existing state agency with conflicting priorities.