Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Statewide Contracting Plan: Locally-Owned, Consolidated Maintenance (Updated)

State contracting for local maintenance is an infrequently discussed and rarely applied plan as a means to help local governments, primary rural, to be relieved of a responsibility they have difficulty managing financially or structurally on their own.  In all, many states have at one time or another offered this service to local governments with the most recent of such arrangements found in a couple states in the interior mountain West in a few remote counties and municipalities.  While similar arrangements existed in parts of the East, they were largely abolished by the mid-1980's.  Today no such arrangements still exist in any of those states with the last of those agreements dissolved in the 1990's.  In the East, usually such an arrangement was coupled with state control meaning the state did not just handle road maintenance for the county, but also the state owned the county roads.  An exception was found in Georgia who briefly offered state-level maintenance services for local governments at their own expense, but that option was eliminated in 1985.

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?


The US Census county map was used here to show the locations of the Captive County road systems as they existed in Alabama until 1979.  The Captive County approach had many serious problems that caused the system to collapse, and no system like it has been formed since that time.  This is why in order to bring a similar model back it must be laid out in a very different model that separates local and state responsibility in a way that still combines county and municipal road systems into a larger statewide system.

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.


While not the worst example, this image shows how small local governments such as Lula, GA here struggle to handle road maintenance on their own.  The W2-2 sign on the right has been left there unreplaced since at least 1981 when the state turned back responsibility to the city on a stretch of Old U.S. 23.  If places like this could contract with a state agency or cooperative, street maintenance could be done at a far lower cost at a higher frequency.

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.

PROGRAMS AVAILABLE TODAY

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.

A REFORMED PLAN WITH NEW APPROACHES

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.

The three main options are as follows:

  1. State-Operated Local Road Maintenance Agency
  2. Interagency Local Roads Cooperative
  3. Statewide Rural Local Road Maintenance Agency

State-Operated Local Road Maintenance Agency

This plan consolidates local road maintenance to the state level, but it comes with a twist.  That responsibility does not fall under responsibility of the state DOT.  Instead, an entirely separate agency is created to handle this responsibility.  This option was briefly introduced in the Regional Roads Plan when mentioning how low population states like Wyoming would simply create a statewide regional agency since the state population is too low to justify smaller regional agencies.  (Scroll down to "Needed Statewide Regulation of Regional Road Systems" to see where Wyoming was mentioned.)  The state-operated local agency has its own funding, own operations and has limited DOT oversight even if technically it falls under the umbrella of the state DOT.  In effect, it works like a county road system that just happens to cover the entire state.  Like the list above, its functions are limited to routine maintenance activities.  Participation would be involuntary in rural areas and optional in completely urbanized areas.  Its functions could be limited to only federal-aid eligible roads and/or traffic control in urbanized areas.

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


The diagram above shows how the state-operated local road maintenance option works.  In this plan, the state DOT is not involved in local road maintenance.  Instead, a separate state agency is created by the legislature so that all counties and municipalities to transfer maintenance responsibility into a single state agency.  The state agency will not be responsible for planning or construction instead providing only routine maintenance services to local agencies.  Obviously some higher population counties, cities and towns may choose to opt out, so that option is shown.  Note that ownership does not change even if one highway agency handles the majority of local road maintenance. 

Unlike with most state DOT contracts with local agencies, it would likely cover both counties and municipalities.  Depending on the by-laws, it may or may not cover every county and most likely would not cover all municipalities.  For this plan to work, at least 75% of counties or in the case of New England at least 75% of townships would be required to participate.  In states without townships, city/town participation would depend on whether the county itself contracted its road maintenance to the state-operated local road maintenance agency.

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.

Interagency Local Roads Cooperative

While functionally similar to a statewide local agency, in design a consolidated local roads cooperative is a revolutionary approach to consolidating local road maintenance to the state level.  In this method, local agencies statewide form their own cooperative by creating a statewide agency that is created with the help of the state's county and municipal associations.  The idea is that by a majority vote of all affected agencies that local agencies may agree to combine forces for routine maintenance services among multiple counties and cities across the state effectively by-passing the state legislature and the state DOT.  Such an agreement, however, depends strongly on the contracting laws of the state, home rule laws and local interest.  They also would depend heavily on participation to be efficient or effective.

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.

Funding for a local roads cooperative is tricky.  Unlike the statewide plan, an interagency cooperative is not likely to be funded at all with state funds, and it will require an adequate local commitment to execute.  Before a cooperative is even launched, a funding formula required for participation must be established based on lane mileage, road mileage, population or a combination of the three.  All participating local agencies should also be fairly compensated meaning that after administrative expenses are deducted that each local agency receives in remainder exactly what they paid into it.  The advantages the local agency would receive would be reduced overhead costs, higher standards, better supervision and more consistent maintenance.  It would not be so much of a cost-based benefit as it would be a resource benefit even though cost savings will be eventually realized.

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.

With a cooperative, instead of local agencies managing their own road maintenance the cooperative does it for them.  It allows for economies of scale, better staffing, better services and an eventual reduction of staff through attrition so that more can be done with less.  Over time it will cost far less than each county and municipality operating their own system, especially in states with a large number of small counties and in states with townships.  In states that use the township system such as New England, a cooperative would be especially beneficial.  In fact, the reason the term "statewide" is used instead of "state" is because a "state" role may not necessarily be handled by a state agency as is evidenced by this cooperative model.


In the cooperative model, the state is not involved in consolidating local maintenance responsibility at all.  Instead, a collective of counties and cities combine resources on their own into a statewide cooperative that is basically user-funded.  It is a jointly owned local agency instead of a state agency requiring high participation to establish.  Some local agencies will be permitted to opt out, but only above a certain threshold.  Most agencies who will be allowed to opt out are cities and towns while counties and townships would generally be restricted in terms of non-participation to make sure that such an organization would be sufficiently structured to provide adequate benefits.  Structurally it would be similar to a regional road agency except that instead of covering parts of a state it would cover most of the state with a patchwork of agencies opting out.

As with any cooperative, by-laws would have to be written by a special committee before the system is established and updated annually to assure that certain goals were being met.  Budgets would have to be approved by the cooperative board and the state DOT would need to be given the right to regulate the activities of the cooperative to make sure they were substantially in compliance with state and federal standards similar to a county agency.  Roadway maintenance standards would have to be universal and would also need to be approved by the board, but with the cooperative method they would be more flexible than if handled by a state agency.  If a cooperative is successful, the state legislature or DOT may also begin to provide matching funds to help finance operations or maintenance activities for the cooperative providing an extra benefit for all participating agencies.

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".

Statewide Rural Local Road Maintenance Agency

This option is actually a hybrid plan that combines the Regional Roads Plan with the Statewide Contracting Plan.  In this option, all rural areas below a specific population threshold fall under a statewide rural local road maintenance agency while higher population counties are combined into metropolitan statistical areas to form regional road networks.  This means that rural areas do not fall into a regional entity while urban areas do.  This plan specifically helps states with oblong geography (such as Maryland) or very large counties (by land area) where such a plan may not work.  This plan also helps urban areas to retain regional local control who do not want to be grouped with rural areas where competition for funding would lead to mistrust and ultimately dissolution of any cooperative.  This plan would work well in states where very large cities compete with vast rural areas for transportation dollars.

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.


This model shows a split into two models of functional consolidation.  The statewide rural roads cooperative may be either a state agency or a joint local cooperative.  The remaining roads that fall in urban MSA's (with a combined population of at least 300,000, which is not shown here) will be combined into regional road districts per the Regional Roads Plan.  Thus, in this plan all roads are consolidated but roadways in urbanized areas have local control of road maintenance within their region instead of within each local agency within that region.

This third option is no different than if the state DOT took over maintenance of rural county roads while requiring urbanized areas to form their own regional highway districts (e.g. Pittsburgh Regional DOT).  The difference is that instead of the state DOT handling this responsibility, that responsibility falls into either a state-operated local roads agency (e.g. Maryland Rural County Highway Administration) or a local cooperative agency (e.g. Tennessee Rural Local Roads Cooperative).

COMMINGLING OF FUNDS: A REASON TO TAKE THE STATE DOT OUT OF THE EQUATION

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.

SPECIFIC DUTIES OF THE STATEWIDE LOCAL ROADS AGENCY

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
  • Planning
    • 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
  • Construction
    • 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
  • Contracting
    • 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:

  1. 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
  2. Local population threshold: counties and cities under a certain population must participate
    • 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
  3. Statewide rural population threshold
    • 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.

In the statewide population ratio method, the system on the surface might seem too limiting in rural areas where a state's population is very highly urbanized, but simple math shows that is not the case.  For instance, in Florida only 8.8% of the state's population lives in a rural area.  Out of a state population of over 18,000,000, only a combined population of 1,662,000 would be eligible for inclusion in such a road system.  However, it should be considered that the bulk of the state's population is heavily concentrated in only half the counties in the state.  This means that under this number that almost 40 counties would be required to join a cooperative system with the more urbanized counties going at it alone.  However, this option also gives a higher population threshold than the population threshold method.  In the Florida example, the highest population county is just over 140,000 before the sum of 1.66 million is reached.  While the combined rural population is a small population, it is still a very large land area.  26 counties have under 50,000 residents and two are under 10,000.  Needless to say, those outlying counties could function much better operating as one large high population county in a state where the most populous counties are mostly found in the southern part of the state hugging the coasts while the interior areas are sparsely populated.  While some outlying counties are found, the rural areas are primarily in two clusters as seen on the map below:


This crudely labeled map shows how rural population threshold method works.  In Florida, 8.8% of the state is considered rural.  When applied to counties based on the lowest population county to highest, the 1.66 million population adds up to 36 counties in the more remote parts of the state.  These counties would join either a statewide county highway agency or interagency cooperative handling engineering and routine maintenance collectively among all the counties shown.  Monroe County due to geographic isolation, however, may need to instead partner with Miami-Dade County as a two county regional road district.  In most cases, regional road districts would be more effective but this map demonstrates what would happen if the rural counties could combine forces to improve standards and lower overhead costs.  Two counties shown in red have populations under 10,000 residents (Source map: US Census County Map).

A STEP UP FROM A REGIONAL ROADS PLAN


It is unmistakable that the Regional Roads Plan, Cooperative Farm-To-Market Plan and Statewide Contracting Plan are similar, but how they are funded is different.  A regional roads plan involves independent regions smaller than a state, but larger than counties managing their own road systems as mini-states.  The cooperative farm-to-market plan requires a dedicated funding source from the local level or a "pay to play" method where the roads function as highways jointly funded by all participating local agencies.  This plan is essentially the regional roads plan brought to a state level with the intent of primarily helping rural areas to bring their road services to the levels of high population counties or the state government.  In addition, the Regional Roads Plan has a flaw in that it may not work in states whose land area is oddly shaped such as Florida, Tennessee or Maryland.  This plan helps to cover those harder to reach areas in an efficient manner.

In the regional roads plan, an entire state can be divided into autonomous regions.  This would shift to a Statewide Contracting Plan, however, if these regions unified under a single statewide agency that unified policies and worked together to identify a single funding source for all the regions.  The transition would replace a decentralized approach with a centralized approach where more authority would rest with a statewide agency that is not part of the state DOT.  This means that standards and funding would transition to a statewide level in some cases and that some services such as a sign shop, equipment and even management could become a statewide matter.  It would be a state highway agency who was co-owned by the regions (instead of individual counties/cities) and worked for the counties and cities alone.

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.

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