Friday, December 11, 2015

Devolution Alternatives: Counties and Municipalities Are Not Powerless to Reform The Road System On Their Own

The theme that the state government should handle routine maintenance or take control of locally-owned roads is fairly prevalent as an alternative to local control when local governments fail to provide quality services.  However, this method has become highly unpopular as state governments tighten their belts while local governments want more accountability on how and where state transportation dollars are spent.  It was originally a part of this site to pursue greater state control as a solution to local transportation problems, but better theories emerged on how this can be handled as each proposal was developed.  What local governments need to realize is that unless the state government specifically prevents sharing of public services they do not have to:

  • Wait for the state government to offer a solution and/or more funding
  • Accept devolution as a mandate that each county who currently uses state forces will have to organize their own road system
  • Worry about the added costs from assuming ownership of roadways transferred from the state highway system
  • Resign themselves as being forever responsible for handling local matters alone

Devolution, when handed off to individual counties and municipalities, almost always leads to a decline in road quality: especially when it's a rural county such as Old U.S. 123 here in Stephens County, GA.  Old U.S. 123 was transferred to the county in 1991.  The county population is around 25,000 with approximately 15,000 living in unincorporated areas, which is far too low of a population for the county to be maintaining roads without being partnered with the state or other counties and municipalities.

In fact, local agencies in states that have large state networks are at a major advantage if they act quickly to pursue an alternative to devolution to the local level.  Before the states put ink to paper attempting to seal the fate of secondary state roads, local agencies can rescue the road system on their own if they are willing to work together.  To do this, a uniting of counties and cities under a common goal to retain and/or expand centralization of the state's local road network without anymore help of the state DOT is how that must be done.  This post will explain how that works.


Few state governments have been forward-thinking in terms of looking for solutions to inadequate funding and the continued drilling down of road responsibilities to the municipal level as cities and towns continue to carve up a finite county tax base.  Obviously the answer is consolidation, but so far only a handful of methods of consolidation have been used in any wide scope.  The first on this list in particular is under intense threat in the handful of states who have such a system.

  • State control of local roads
    • Farm-to-market systems (e.g. Texas, Missouri, Kentucky)
    • Comprehensive systems (e.g. North Carolina, Delaware, West Virginia)
  • County/municipal maintenance of state-owned roads
    • Mostly agreements for city routine maintenance of state-owned surface streets
    • County routine maintenance of state-owned roads is only common in Wisconsin and Michigan
  • Municipal/township contracting with counties
    • A city, town or township contracts with the county for routine maintenance of roads and streets
    • Not common in larger population municipalities and townships
  • Shared service/equipment agreements
    • Usually only unit or personnel specific between counties and municipalities
    • Occasionally between states and local agencies, two counties or two municipalities
    • Temporary in nature and non-binding
  • Service swapping agreements
    • Local agency provides service for an equal dollar exchange of another (used primarily in Pennsylvania)
    • Usually involves the exchange of labor-intensive activities provided by the smaller agency to the larger agency in exchange for technical operations provided by the larger agency to the smaller agency
    • Not comprehensive and not an effective solution to larger issues that face local governments
  • Co-location of state/local or county/municipal facilities usually coupled with shared equipment
    • Not frequently used except in a few low-population areas
    • Does nothing to address other rural roadway deficiencies
  • Block grants (usually state or federal-aid to local) for specific upgrades that are not routine in nature
    • Safety improvement upgrades (e.g. Georgia, Tennessee)
    • Centralized state-aid bridge or paving programs (e.g. Georgia)
    • Does not provide adequate supervision to correct engineering errors
    • Does not offer any warranties for knockdowns, theft or long-term maintenance

In all of these methods, the elephant in the room is that most of these local agencies are all still operating independent of each other and with little or no supervision from the state.  While all of these existing concepts are good ideas, their fundamental weaknesses are the lack of consistency that comes from a lack of true accountability and a lack of commitment to bring stronger partners together.  Instead of having the county contract with the smallest towns in a county, for instance, have the biggest city in the county contract with the county.  Picture, for instance, if Amarillo, Texas (population 105,486) contracted with Potter County (unincorporated population of 15,394).  Clearly Potter County needs the city more than the city needs the county.  Furthermore, both should be partnering with the surrounding counties: many that have total populations of fewer than 10,000 residents.

Even the first option (state control) presents a problem in that it effectively neuters counties as partners in transportation planning when local governments are not given broad financial flexibility for capital improvements and are held captive to state standards as a condition for states providing maintenance in lieu of the counties.  In some states, it still makes sense for the state to be the partner, but as the country's population increases, the division of responsibilities needs something in between the state level and the local level.  States like Florida, Texas and Georgia have populations exceeding 10 million residents.  Should that responsibility be centralized to the state level in such large states?

Even if the state is too big to handle local matters, it is a broad assumption that road maintenance is an even playing field where anybody can be the star quarterback if they just try a little harder.  However, if the state will not step in the game with the state DOT saying no to functional consolidation methods that utilize state DOT forces, the game is not over.  Local agencies can have better roads, but they have to be willing to try a new tactic.  If the coach (the state) will not let the local agencies play or wants to kick players off their team, then it is time for the local agencies to form their own teams in a whole new league.

The important thing to keep in mind is that the quality of highway system (local or state) is all about five things: 

  1. The agency's willingness to create/adopt uniform standards and routinely abide by those same standards in all areas
  2. A proper organizational structure with sufficient employment levels, adequate specialization, proper supervision and effective training
    • Most importantly, any road agency should be engineer driven meaning that management is by a registered professional engineer and traffic control managed by a professional traffic operations engineer
  3. Adequate equipment and facilities that are used as much as possible and duplicated as little as possible
  4. A sufficient budget that has enough flexibility and purchasing power to avoid deferring essential maintenance and to allow for some larger purchases
  5. Economies of scale allowing for greater purchasing power, flexibility and efficiency

The lack of supervision is apparent here on this old alignment in Cherry Log, GA.  The reverse curve situation was realigned into a curve leading to a stop 1989!  Every sign you see here is that old including the lone chevron sign in the background.  If this county was part of a cooperative, issues like this would have been recognized and corrected quickly and effectively.  Because of the rural nature of the county and lack of organization/funding for traffic control, maintenance on this road has been deferred for more than 25 years.

Bigger is better when it comes to road maintenance, because proper execution is a complicated operation that requires a high level of technical expertise and supervision.  It is important to point out that just like counties, state governments will also be less able to maintain roads well when they pursue devolution.  While devolution theoretically will help the states focus on fewer major roads, the costs per mile increase due to the reduction in staff, diminished purchasing power and reduced operational efficiency.  In fact, heavily decentralized states tend to face more financial problems in transportation than states that are more centralized as evidenced by the recent troubles in states like Alabama, New Jersey and Michigan: all states with proportionally small state highway systems.  Instead of a slope, the cost benefit ratio is more likely a bell curve where a peak is achieved somewhere between where a state is spread too thin financially vs. where operational inefficiency reduces output.  If devolution is viewed as the solution to improve roads, then the problem is most likely one of two things:

  • A structural issue
    • Government waste (excessive costs/too many active road projects/cost overruns on contracts)
    • Misuse of funds (appropriating transportation funds away from certain regions, lower roadway classifications or to non-transportation purposes)
    • Lack of interagency cooperation (local governments are little or not at all involved in jointly or fully financing construction projects beyond the scope of state-aid projects)
      • This means that local agencies are not consolidating or sharing any roadway responsibilities with the state, other counties, other municipalities or to wnships
  • A funding issue 
    • Taxes are inadequate in relation to the level of state responsibility (e.g. too little funds available per mile of state responsibility)
    • Local funding sources are not tapped to finance road projects on non-federal-aid roads under state control
    • State are failing to partner with local governments in terms of funding or responsibility to finance construction and maintenance projects
      • This includes the lack of any local-option taxes and/or state-aid payment ratios to the local governments are too low

Fixing one or both should eliminate any need for further devolution.  In fact, the theory surrounding devolution does not even justify having a central state agency!  Instead, devolution advocates should pursue devolving the entire roadway responsibility to local agencies to be intellectually honest.  History has shown, however, that decentralization of road responsibility was a proven failure, which is why no state in the nation today has a road system that is completely controlled by the individual local governments when before 1920 that was how almost all public roads were maintained.  In all, a single road foreman or county engineer should not be working alone on a small corner of the state.  They need to work together with others in a similar or larger capacity in order to better supervise operations and raise standards to a level adequate so that the need for the state government to handle local matters is diminished. 


Contract law is a major factor in how much control local governments have.  It does not appear that any state expressly bans interlocal agreements, and that reason alone frees local governments to pursue consolidation of operations with other local governments if they choose, so why do they not?  Much of that has to do with no clear protocol or regulation in the matter.  Most interagency agreements are sporadic, non-contiguous, non-binding and do not have any independent oversight from the state or federal government.  With roads, interlocal agreements are also rarely multi-county.  A matter as simple as sharing a county engineer is likewise not common in most states unless the population is very low in one or both counties.  Counties generally only share county resources with the cities and towns within the same county, and they usually only occur when:

  • The population of one or more towns within the county is very low or
  • The largest city through annexation decimates county population, land and tax revenues to the point where the county can no longer afford to function separately (e.g. Nashville/Davidson County)  

Overall, the desire for control by local authorities and fear of interagency conflict prevents most counties and municipalities from taking these measures more seriously.  Usually, the interlocal agreement most desired is with the state, but for some reason state governments systematically refuse to get involved: especially when it involves a county or township.  If nothing else, it should be routine for counties to choose whether to hire the state as a contractor to maintain their own roads or to accept payments from the state to thus use their own forces to maintain state roads if they are adequately equipped to do so.  Neither of these options increase costs for either party, and they are well known to actually save money as well as raise local standards.  Neither indicates a transfer of ownership.  That does not seem to matter to most states.  Most states still say no to these types of agreements for vague legal or political reasons.  States have made it clear they want out of the road maintenance business as much as possible, but at the same time they do not trust counties to handle this responsibility on state-owned roads.  The clear division of responsibility looks good on paper, but it is costlier while decreasing road quality.

Considering that the state DOT is not a realistic option for local agencies anymore, it is important that local agencies begin negotiations with each other in terms of shared responsibility while retaining primary authority to finance and construct roads independently as they do today.  This can be done without any state help at all by a new vision viewing counties and municipalities as pieces of a larger puzzle instead of independent subdivisions of the state.  This can be accomplished through successful negotiations to create at least one statewide cooperative to manage and maintain local roads.  It also may be possible that the state would then jointly fund such an operation if it were successful.

Each state has an association of counties (if they exist) and municipalities.  They work together to pursue common goals and to sway state government away from policies that are not beneficial to them.  With roads, these common goals should be as follows:

  1. Strengthen local government through the formation of multi-regional or statewide cooperatives
  2. Replace state forces with interlocal cooperative forces for state highway maintenance
  3. Pursue devolution only in the event that statewide cooperation is successful

Strengthen local government through the formation of multi-regional or statewide cooperatives

When looking at the government of a county, which is going to be more influential?

  1. The county with 15,000 residents
  2. The county with 500,000 residents

Do you see the problem here?  The local agencies in the first county have little resources and no clout.  Chances are state residents may have never even heard of the county unless they happen to live in it or nearby.  They are likely ignored by state governments when problems are presented such as an inability to properly maintain roads with their available resources: especially if the county is economically depressed.  The second county, however, likely functions more like a state within a state having significant influence with the state capital and a road system that meets or exceeds state standards.  That is, if the second county is largely consolidated for road maintenance meaning that the county either has few municipalities or the county is sharing maintenance with those municipalities.  Consider a county in Texas where a county with 500,000 residents may have 90% of the county's population living in cities in the county.  Thus, even the second county may still have an inadequate road system due to economic conditions, municipal fragmentation of the county government or even a lack of interest in road maintenance by local elected officials.  The first county may even be close to the second geographically, but the invisible lines separate them so that the benefits of the larger county do not extend to smaller county while the cost savings of the larger county merging routine maintenance responsibility with the smaller county are not realized.   

Let's say the high population county does not want to be bothered with the low population county because they feel it will drain resources.  This is why regional cooperation cannot be sporadic and isolated, but it can be limited in scope.  If the sharing of resources is more universally pursued, it is more likely to become a permanent fixture of good government.  In addition, cooperative agreements like this if started out small can be expanded to cover more activities as they become established.  Throughout this site, four new models of cooperative road maintenance have been proposed:

  1. Traffic Control Cooperatives
    • Multiple counties and cities create a regional or statewide cooperative whose duties are limited to the engineering, installation and maintenance of traffic control devices and safety improvements
    • Each cooperative is headed by a PTOE (professional traffic operations engineer) who is a PE specialized in traffic control
    • A function-specific cooperative could apply to other areas also such as engineering services or equipment
    • Most likely to succeed in higher population areas; rural areas may require additional state-aid to cover operations fees
    • This method can serve as a pilot project for cooperative agreements that can be later expanded to a full-service road maintenance operation
  2. Farm-To-Market Cooperatives
    • Resources pooled on a local level statewide to finance common ownership and maintenance of a specific ratio of local roads not under state control that have regional or statewide importance
    • Instead of county-specific retainers, funding is in a larger pool that allows the agency to focus on their roads like the state manages state highways
    • Other local roads may be contracted to the cooperative at the local agency's own expense
  3. Regional Cooperatives
    • Multiple "states within a state" are formed that group any combination of cities, towns and counties in large metropolitan areas with other metro counties and bordering rural counties into a single unit to provide engineering and routine road maintenance services on all roads within that region
    • Must have a minimum population ratio of at least 300,000 residents to be beneficial with all agencies within that population participating
    • All unincorporated areas statewide should be part of at least one regional cooperative and provided incentives to join and not opt out meaning state-aid covering operations costs
    • May be established as either a farm-to-market system or comprehensive system
    • May be function-specific such as a traffic control cooperative
  4. Statewide Cooperatives
    • Like a regional cooperative except that all counties and municipalities within a state form a single statewide cooperative under joint ownership of all local agencies in the state
    • It functions similar to, but independent of the state DOT to provide routine road maintenance services for most or all counties and municipalities
    • User-financed system most likely to be used primarily by rural counties and municipalities to pool resources in order to establish service levels and maintenance standards similar to urbanized counties and municipalities

In these four plans, the local agencies all do the same thing: use their own ability to form contracts with other local agencies to join forces creating basically an alternative state or regional government entity.  This entity is designed with the single purpose of pooling resources to use a single agency to handle local road maintenance in lieu of each individual local agency within a state or defined region.  This can either be created through a state convention that establishes the system with their own by-laws, or the interest by a majority of counties and cities can lead to action in the state legislature to establish one or more legal cooperative entities recognized by the state opening the possibility for a portion of state-aid to finance these operations.  If counties, cities and towns want this, they likely could successfully get state governments to further define and draft rules for a regional or statewide cooperative.

Replace state forces with interlocal cooperative forces for state highway maintenance

The fundamental flaw and obvious weakness of cooperatives is that in order for it to work participation must be either mandatory and/or participation must be broad and nearly universal.  Knowing that some or even many local agencies will resist joining a cooperative without a strong incentive, the way around this is to encourage the state DOT's to eliminate their road maintenance division for roadways other than freeways and expressways.  Obviously, this would mean that employees, equipment and facilities owned by the state DOT would rightly shift to the cooperative along with state-aid funds.  This means that reverse consolidation would take place: instead of the local governments handing responsibility to the state, the state would hand responsibility to the local governments operating thus as a single regional or statewide unit.  This means that the state DOT would shift to being administrative in function while road maintenance would become an interagency responsibility handled by a jointly-owned superregional or statewide cooperative.  A form of this model is Wisconsin where all road maintenance on both state and county roads is handled by the counties.

What this means is that the benefits of state control would still occur, but with a focus on local governments instead of centralization to a single state DOT.  Remember that the cooperatives have fewer powers than the state DOT.  They are an organization that engineers and maintains roads within specific parameters based on the by-laws of the organization.  This means that county roads and municipal streets are still locally-owned even if the individual counties and municipalities do not directly maintain them unless all partner agencies agree to transfer ownership of certain roads to the cooperative.  The main purpose of having the cooperative maintain state roads is to provide greater state funding to the cooperative(s) to eventually scale down operational expenses on the local agencies to zero so that local funding can go further to improve roads while the state saves money by not running their own road maintenance operation.  

This method is also a hedge against local agencies who opt out of the cooperative.  If 50% of counties participate and the other 50% refuse, the additional maintenance of state roads will prevent the dilution of funding to the point where a return to full local control seems preferable.  It is likely unavoidable that one county or city may be in the cooperative that is nowhere near any others making it uneconomical to hand over that responsibility to the cooperative if they are not otherwise bridging that large gap with state highway maintenance.  Picture, for instance, if Monroe County, FL was a member of a statewide cooperative in Florida while the nearest participating county was 200 miles away in Central Florida.  It simply would not work unless the cooperative was also handling surface state road maintenance among all the counties in between thus bridging that gap.  

Notice in this map the difficulties that Monroe County would face if they chose to participate in a rural statewide cooperative agency.  While Monroe County makes up the SW corner of Florida, very little development occurs on the mainland with only 1-2 roads.  The majority of the county and its population is spread throughout the Florida Keys.  However, if the cooperative handled most state highway maintenance it would help to bridge the gap between the nearest county (Hardee) and Monroe County.

The other approach, of course, is the farm-to-market approach meaning that no counties or cities can completely opt out of the cooperative system.  With a farm-to-market system layer, the cooperative contracting for state maintenance is encouraged but is not essential.  Thus, if 50% of the counties in Florida contracted their roads fully with the cooperative, the other 50% would still have some roads on the system thus bridging the gap between isolated Monroe County and the rest of the state.

Pursue devolution only in the event that statewide cooperation is successful

Devolution as a whole has been heavily discouraged, but in the case that cooperatives successfully cover the entire rural road system with only the most high population areas opting out, it would make sense to eliminate as many unnecessary state roads as possible steering further resources from a state level to the cooperative agency.  This option is the most encouraged if a statewide cooperative is adopted that either includes a farm-to-market system layer or operates solely as a farm-to-market system.

Imagine if Kentucky had a single statewide agency owned jointly by every county and municipality providing most or all road maintenance services in lieu of the separate local agencies.  They could still operate successfully with sole responsibility for up to 63% of the roads, but if they had this much responsibility it would make financial sense for both agencies to trim back Kentucky's highway system to transfer more roads onto the cooperative system.  Considering that federal-aid responsibility is around 25%, this would mean a transfer of around 12% of the roads from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to the cooperative statewide agency.  Thus, KyTC would maintain 25% of the roads while the statewide cooperative would maintain 75% of the roads compared to today where KyTC maintains 37% of the roads while the individual counties and cities maintain 63% of the roads.

If county roads looked like this consistently, the concept of local control would be a lot more appealing.  However, for that to work direct local control should be limited to planning/construction while maintenance should be handled by either a statewide cooperative or larger regional agencies owned jointly by multiple counties and municipalities.  It is the only way to assure that local roads are consistent and well-maintained regardless of jurisdiction without involving the state DOT.

Preferably, devolution in this instance should be pursued in states with much smaller state road systems: states who have a limited ratio of roads on the state road system designated rural major collector or urban minor arterial thus already splitting the responsibility for federal-aid secondary roads between the states and the local agencies.  In this instance, the state should transfer these roadways of lower federal-aid classification to the cooperative system as part of the cooperative's own farm-to-market network.  These are states whose ratio of state control ranges somewhere between 12 and 20 percent.  This approach would be likely far less successful in states whose control ratio is much lower.


A few states have adopted policies of uniform standards to be applied specifically on county and municipal roads that are adopted by most counties and municipalities, but this is uncommon.  Only three states are known to have such policies, and results are still mixed: Washington State, Iowa and Pennsylvania.  The reason for this is that the costs are excessive when born by a small local agency with limited resources to maintain the few roads they have, so some simply rebel hoping that nobody will notice.  However, with the cooperative method this is no longer the case.  In this instance, statewide standards CAN be created and enforced, and the counties and municipalities who are unable to do so will have somewhere to turn besides the state government.  At bare minimum they can transfer specific functions they cannot handle and at most they could transfer their entire road system.  The state DOT in either case is not required nor involved in any of these efforts.


The saying goes that "when one door closes another one opens".  As the era of state control of roads winds down as the system has aged and state populations have soared, local agencies have been facing increased responsibility and decreased funding as a means of managing their own responsibility.  They can do this a lot better when they act as one statewide unit or as only a few large population regional units statewide.  While cooperatives are functionally similar in many ways to state DOT's, the difference is that they are not part of the state DOT and likely will not be part of state government at all.  Their structure instead is designed to work for the mutual benefit of local agencies meaning less stringent requirements and a focus solely on local needs.  The state government has a difficult time prioritizing the needs of local governments with the need of statewide travel, and this has been a major argument for devolution.  What if that "devolution" was instead actually just the creation of another statewide agency whose primary focus IS local roads?  It could be called a divorce where the local agencies are one spouse and the state DOT is the other.  In a divorce, one ex-spouse doesn't magically turn into 50 or 100 carbon copies of that spouse to all pay alimony to individually, so why is this done with roads?  Imagine how much more consistent and better maintained local roads would be if that responsibility was shared where it was most beneficial.  It is possible using a cooperative approach instead of the present decentralized approach.

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