Monday, December 14, 2015

Statewide Cooperative Plan Spotlight: Virginia/West Virginia

Most spotlights focus on a single state or region, but in this post two states will be combined into one, and the reason for this is that they are dealing with exactly the same situation and have a similar history in terms of transportation policy and issues.  They also share the same dilemma: will their long-consolidated road networks be decimated rather than fixed?


The future of Virginia and West Virginia Roads if road maintenance is turned completely to the county.  Is this what you want?

Long before most people living today in Virginia or West Virginia knew why, a couple powerful politicians decided to adopt their own versions of North Carolina's radical plan to transfer ownership of entire county road systems to the state.  Originally a recommendation by the Brookings Institute, the concept was viewed as a means to save money during the Depression by relieving county governments of the costs of building and maintaining roads.  The plan was adopted to galvanize political support from struggling local governments in the Depression who were no longer able to afford to maintain roads to prior levels: a situation that is still familiar in many states today who are suffering from economic collapse in their rural communities.


More of the nonsense you're likely to see with a transfer to local control.  This sign was found on a county road in Tennessee.  Photo by FreeBrickProductions

Of the two states, Virginia was first to adopt this new centralized method of administering roads in 1932.  West Virginia quickly followed suit less than a year later.  In Virginia, it was U.S. Senator Harry Flood Byrd, previously governor until 1930, who adopted the North Carolina plan but with a twist.  Unlike North Carolina who forcefully assumed responsibility for all county roads, Virginia made the participation voluntary.  Nonetheless, only four counties opted out: two of those remaining independent today proving that most local agencies were very supportive of handing this responsibility to the state.  The counties that remained out are both very urban counties that would most likely be incorporated as a city in another state.  Arlington County in particular is a defacto city.

Dubbed the "Byrd Road Act", the plan required that the state road commission assume control of all public roads in counties who agreed to do so.  West Virginia, however, adopted the North Carolina plan wholeheartedly forcing all counties to transfer their entire public road responsibility to the state.  In West Virginia, this was done in 1933 under the administration of Governor Herman Kump.  While it was a revolutionary move, it was a huge success.  Other states were quick to notice this move in addition to the sharp increase in road standards in North Carolina especially.  Throughout the 1930's and 1940's North Carolina was known as the "Good Roads State", and this new method of maintaining roads was a major factor.  Other states debated adopting a centralized road strategy, and at its peak at least seven states adopted this strategy.  Additional states developed state-controlled farm-to-market road networks limiting county maintenance to only the most lightly traveled roads.  However, only three transferred all county roads to the state.  Those that have since abandoned this consolidated approach include Alabama, Maryland and Texas.  Today, West Virginia and Virginia are also strongly considering reducing or eliminating the state's role in county road maintenance meaning a reversal of a strategy adopted more then 80 years ago.


Roads like this intersection of VA S-608 (West Ox Road) and VA S-602 in Fairfax County are products of the Byrd Road Act consolidating all county road maintenance into VDOT starting in 1932.  Started as a means of aiding counties who were left bankrupt during the Depression, it survived 80 years as proof that the state government was capable of administering roads on behalf of the counties at higher standards than the counties themselves to provide.  With very few states adopting such a system, systems like this are under attack from small government proponents who do not recognize or care about the consequences of doing so: consequences that are easily identifiable in other states.

A CHANGE IN PERSPECTIVE: NEW ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL REALITIES

When Virginia and West Virginia changed their road systems to a heavily centralized state-owned system, the advantages were clear.  Counties were underfunded, poorly regulated, not building roads fast enough, not coordinating plans with one another and, most of all, not doing a good job maintaining their own roads.  This remains true today in the majority of states with broad local control.  Most states accepted this reality during the peak of the Good Roads Movement, but they ultimately only agreed to take on major roads leaving counties responsible for the majority of secondary roads.  These two states, however, took it much further accepting that counties were generally unfit to maintain any road regardless of function.  Nonetheless, the idea of state control of any road was a new concept, and it was always collectivist in nature.  Prior to the 1920's all roads were maintained by local governments with no true highway system in place anywhere.  

For the first couple decades, the benefits of this arrangement were tremendous as the state was able to modernize and standardize the road system with no obstacles.  Centralization of road authority to the state level continued to gain steam peaking in the 1940's and 1950's.  By the 1960's, however, the debate began to shift away from this approach.  The agreed on benefit of centralization was to free counties from having to use property taxes to construct and maintain roads with the belief that the gasoline tax would be sufficient to cover this new responsibility while providing that same service at far less cost.  It also took the politics out of state control allowing the states to transfer throughout the 1940's politically-motivated highways down to the local level since they would still be administered by the state as secondary roads.  In all, it was possible for the many rural counties to do far more with less, and it allowed all the counties to opt out of road maintenance if they did not feel they were equipped to handle it on their own.  This was demonstrated when rural Nottoway County in Virginia, who had originally opted out of the Byrd Road Act, chose to join the system only a year later.

However, the need to modernize major highways accelerated with the construction of the interstate system beginning in 1956.  Prior to 1956, freeways were largely a local matter as a means of creating short, partially access-controlled express routes through congested parts of cities and around congested sections of highway, but no nationwide freeway or expressway system was planned or in place.  After 1956, attention and substantial funding shifted from construction of the overall road system to building newer, larger and faster major roads.  Many believed that the state's priorities should be used only for these major roads.  Thus, state control of local roads became controversial as these states began to invest less and less in secondary road construction and maintenance.  By the 1980's, Maryland and Alabama had turned back to the counties all of their secondary roads while other states began downsizing their own state-maintained road systems: especially Florida.  Devolution was in the air, and the desire for devolution has accelerated as larger, fast growing counties have become more powerful and more prosperous while states have likewise become stingier and stingier with state-aid funds to local governments.  Their substantial influence tipped the scales away from rural interests meaning the state DOT's, who once prioritized rural road programs, began to lose interest.  The four remaining states including Virginia and West Virginia have since that time hung on to their centralized system by a thread, and not enough have defended what works about these systems.  A louder voice needs to be heard in support of saving them, and that means new approaches to an old system must be discussed.


One road in one of the formerly state-controlled county road networks in Alabama.  This is how devolution looks.  This road seen here was transferred from state to local control in 1980.

The important thing for proponents of the Byrd Road Act is that the argument against devolution does not work when devolution proponents can cite that the vast majority of states have counties, cities and towns who are forced to maintain substantial road systems.  They need to point out that the road systems in those other states do not work as suggested, and this blog has shown why repeatedly.  Rescuing the system requires that limited structural changes and new safeguards are put in place to make sure that local priorities are in sync with state priorities and that cost savings are further demonstrated in the form of well-maintained roads.  The argument against devolution looks weak when motorists are dodging potholes on broken roads with asphalt trucks nowhere to be found and accountable leaders hard to find.

VIRGINIA AND WEST VIRGINIA: WHAT WORKS AND WHAT DOES NOT

Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina have all demonstrated what other states do not seem to understand: county road maintenance actually is better when it is centralized under a large, statewide authority.  While no local road system is perfect, the uniformity and consistency in standards coupled with routine maintenance that is deferred far less frequently makes these systems work as intended.  In addition, under a centralized system routine maintenance is always handled by a properly staffed agency who is qualified to handle technical matters.  Statewide attention is also given to maintenance with heavy economies of scale meaning that repairing and repaving roads can be done quickly and efficiently as long as ample statewide funding is available.  Winter and summer maintenance is also far more quickly attended to than surrounding states who have to rely on many jurisdictions duplicating equipment, materials and services to do the same job.  In the winter storms of 2014 and 2015, VDOT had roads consistently cleared within a day while county roads in neighboring Maryland remained slick.  When a blizzard threatens, VDOT has both primary and secondary roads salted pre-treated and safe with a centralized budget while populous Montgomery County, MD struggled to salt its major streets.  In addition, traffic control in Virginia is properly studied, maintained and in good repair while many counties in Maryland have never completed traffic studies on public roads.  Why would these states want to give something like this up?

The problem, unfortunately, lies with fiscal politics that have created a massive construction backlog in a road system like this.  While the list above is true, the major problem with state control of county roads is a heavy reliance on the state to both construct and maintain these roads.  When the state does not raise enough money to finance their road system, the backlog means that secondary roads become low priority for major improvements while state funds are instead directed to large road projects designed to build and improve major highways.  If the county is not involved in funding construction on these roads or to serve as a middleman to make sure that counties are getting road projects funded then nothing gets done.  Essentially, the state will in most cases adequately maintain the secondary roads, but nothing is left over for projects to improve substandard design.  Suddenly a road that was adequate for 1965 becomes congested and unsafe by 2015.  Add to that the situations of low-volume roads that are typically ignored by the state that make up as much as 1/3 of the road system.

Overall, this state-controlled system worked well until the 1970's when gas tax revenues were plentiful and funds flowed freely, but since that time states have continued to cut services rather than raise taxes.  They have also systematically refused to introduce significant local financing without adding the condition that the counties must then take over the roads.  The result is an impasse where both agencies disinvest in secondary roads with the local governments afraid that if they do too much they will ultimately be stuck with the whole responsibility.  State governments have likewise proved untrustworthy by insisting that any local financing is also a legal obligation to the local agencies: this scares the counties into doing little or nothing.  Maybe part of the problem is the state having so much power to decide the fate of the local governments by providing no other alternative.

Virginia and West Virginia both have secondary road systems that still have thousands of miles of roads that are not built to modern highway standards, including federal-aid eligible roads.  With narrow lanes, little to no shoulders and poor geometry coupled with miles of moderately-traveled gravel roads that still are yet to be paved, these roads are not safe for modern travel.  In addition, the state burden for maintaining secondary roads has reduced funding necessary to widen, construct and reconstruct thousands of miles of primary state roads.  In Virginia, interstate connectivity is poor, four lane roads are underbuilt and intersections are unable to handle the traffic volumes that pass through them.  Local financing does exist in Virginia, but it does not come from state sources meaning that counties have very little funding available to construct roads to transfer to the state for maintenance.  While regional funding mechanisms have existed in Virginia since 2012 in the larger urban areas, they are used primarily for congestion relief.  They do not address design and maintenance issues on more lightly traveled secondary roads and streets.

WHY ARE THEY CONSIDERING DEVOLUTION OF THE SECONDARY ROADS?

The paragraph above partially explained the problem, but the issue is deeper than this.  One thing that must be made very clear is that the devolution of secondary state roads in Virginia and West Virginia would be a terrible mistake despite the points made above that appear to support it.  The system still works, but it just needs tweaking to adapt it to modern realities.  Overall, it should be saved or rescued at all costs.  If the devolution action is taken, it will be too late.  As the roads decline from previous levels and costs go up, it will become very clear why it was a major mistake.  Nonetheless, an alternative will be presented that can rescue the system if the state votes to sever the state's connection to county roads.  

Regardless, many feel the solution is devolution.  The reason they want this is fourfold:

  • Funding: state politicians who have pledged low taxes to constituents would rather defer the responsibility of road construction and maintenance to the local governments than raise taxes to the levels necessary to maintain the roads they have.  They ignore that it takes far more funding to adequately maintain roads when the overhead costs increase.  They ignore the fact that this problem is largely attributed to gas taxes not being indexed to inflation.  Taxes will still have to be raised, but it will be appear that they are less because it will not be the state that is raising taxes
  • Local Control: the idea is that if states give the counties money to build roads, then they also must give them the legal responsibility to maintain them.  No consideration is being made that the state can give counties options to fund roads such as local option sales or gas taxes and still have the state continue routine maintenance on these roads.  Having local financing and state control is not unheard of.  Urban farm-to-market (state) roads in Texas have locally-financed construction but are still maintained by the state.
  • Ideology: the concept of a single state controlling every mile of non-municipal roads is seen by local control advocates who lean conservative as a socialistic concept that is treated as undemocratic.  They believe that local matters should be addressed locally regardless of whether that local agency is suited to handle that responsibility.  To them a larger state agency is dictatorial or unaccountable.  They forget that conditions like that also commonly exist on a local level with "boss" politics common in less transient areas.  They also forget that having a state maintained road system at all is a progressive policy.
  • Population Growth: high population and fast-growing counties are frustrated with the lack of progress made by the state to widen and improve roads to keep pace with high growth and increases in traffic.  The counties feel that they could build and upgrade roads more quickly than the state.  This may or may not be true, but that does not necessarily justify local maintenance only local construction.

This push for devolution is a slippery slope.  The discussion for it ranges from as little as simply transferring secondary roads in the higher population counties to the counties themselves to as much as every county and town contracted to the state.  Nonetheless, any success in these better equipped counties leads to a false precedent justifying the complete transfer of the entire secondary system in both states to the counties.  Using high population counties to justify application of the same policy to lower population counties (which make up the vast majority of both states) is apples and oranges.  Sure they are both fruits (counties), but they are not the same and never will be.  It would be a disaster.  In Virginia, this would transfer roads from one single state agency to 93 counties, most with low populations.  In West Virginia, this would transfer roads from one single state agency to 55 counties: all but two or three much too small and poor to ever handle road maintenance on their own to anywhere near the levels of the state.  In fact, several counties in WV are in such economic despair that the counties are struggling to fund any public services much less roads.

A CASE FOR RESCUING THE ROADS: A DEVOLUTION ALTERNATIVE FOR BOTH STATES

The arguments made by the devolution proponents are not unfounded, but they do not justify giving the entire roadway responsibility to individual counties.  In both Virginia and West Virginia, the issue with the secondary system is primarily limited to a fewer high population counties with most counties content to leave the system as is.  In Virginia, the counties that have primarily explored county maintenance include Fairfax, Chesterfield and James City Counties: all high population counties near the state's largest cities.  Fairfax in particular has an unincorporated population of over a million residents making it unusually well-funded for local operations.  In West Virginia, interest has been primarily in Berkeley and Monongalia Counties, both more urbanized counties.  Should the whole system be dismantled over a few counties desire to speed up road construction?



Virginia's backlog is demonstrated in these two photos.  The first shows a road in Loudoun County with a subdivision entrance to the right.  The bridge in the foreground is wooden and the road itself is too narrow with poor shoulders.  The second shows a road in Fauquier County, a county with 100,000 residents.  These photos are not designed to encourage devolution.  They are there to prove that if the state is unable to provide an adequate investment in bringing roads like this to modern construction standards, local agencies should be given more options to do so without being required to take over routine maintenance of these roads.  The state does an acceptable job with routine maintenance, but they lack the funds to substantially improve secondary roads like these.

Exploring the four points of devolution above, there are two solutions: a simple solution and a more sweeping solution.  The simple solution addresses funding and works within the existing road system framework.  The sweeping solution is where the counties themselves take over state responsibility as a joint operation.  First, the simple solution is described below:

The Simple Solution

  • Split the road user taxes so that the state retains enough to continue routine maintenance while distributing the rest to counties to use as they see fit, but only on roads
    • For instance, if a non-specific state has a 25 cent per gallon gas tax and reserves 10 cents for secondary construction and maintenance, the state would hold back 5 cents for administration and routine maintenance of the secondary road system distributing the other 5 cents to the local governments to use for road construction projects
  • In projects funded with state-aid, require a local funding match using local property taxes or other means
    • In the example above, if the state distributes 5 cents, funding may not be used if it is not matched with local funds.  For instance, if the county uses state-aid funds for a $1.2 million bridge replacement, the state requires a 20% local match.  Thus, the county agrees to pay $240,000 of the total project cost. 
  • Give the counties additional funding mechanisms that they can share with non-independent municipalities in the form of local option sales taxes or local option gas taxes
    • An urban county raises a 1/2 cent sales tax to fund additional road improvements not covered by state funds
    • A rural county who lacks retail centers may raise a 3 cent additional gasoline tax to fund road improvements not covered by state funds
    • Allow additional fees (such as local option ad valorem taxes) to be used if other options aren't possible, but only up to a certain level
  • Retain state control of secondary roads and continue routine maintenance while handing part or all roadway construction project responsibility to counties
    • Consider this example.  Imagine that Loudoun County finances the complete reconstruction and paving of Rt. 673 (Featherbed Lane) and then resurfaces and widens the shoulders on five other secondary roads with county funds.  
    • While the county has financed construction work on these roads, this does not mean that these roads go to the county for routine maintenance.  They would still be state roads maintained by the state regardless of the fact that state funds were not used to upgrade these roads.
    • The state's responsibility would be limited to routine maintenance on these roads.  While some funds may be available for minor construction (patching, resurfacing), most would be used for engineering, traffic control and other routine maintenance.  It would be expected that Loudoun County would handle construction on behalf of the state with the understanding that Loudoun County is not responsible for maintaining those roads
  • Loosen construction requirements allowing entirely locally-funded projects on secondary state roads to deviate from state standards as long as the overall design otherwise meets sound engineering practices
    • If Albemarle County wants to use an alternative bridge rail design, use decorative lightposts, use brick pavers in urban streetscapes or some other activity that is not typically done by VDOT then they should be allowed to do this as long as the design complies with basic engineering standards and does not create an unsafe condition or negatively affect traffic patterns
    • Counties and cities may designate truck restrictions on any secondary state road as long as an adequate alternative is available



If the county has adequate funds to do so, there is no reason that construction projects could not be funded with local funding in either Virginia or West Virginia.  However, that should not under any circumstances come with a very big rope attached that the county must be required to take over maintenance of that road.  That is a stupid and short-sighted solution to a funding problem.  Roads like County Route 22 in Berkeley County (the second most populous in the state) might be capable of taking over construction, but not maintenance.  Berkeley County with a population over 100,000 might be able to finance local road projects to be transferred back to WVDOH for maintenance upon completion.   Morgan County, which is adjacent, probably could not.  It has a population of a little over 17,000 with resources for local control extremely limited.  If WVDOH abandons maintenance of roads like this, it would most definitely lead to a decline in roadway maintenance standards for any county that takes that responsibility.

The Sweeping Solution

The sweeping solution explores what to do if either state still forces counties to take over maintenance.  At this point, the counties must produce a counter proposal, because talks to save the system with the above recommended reforms have failed.  Fortunately, that counter proposal is ready and available as any combination of four options that involve the creation of an interlocal cooperative.  It is summarized in detail as a response to an uncooperative state legislature who is determined to get WVDOH or VDOT out of the county and municipal road business.  

In this sweeping solution, it is important to know that until the bill is signed forcing counties to form their own street departments that the road system is still unified under a single state agency up until that point.  That means that the system can be rescued as a joint entity with the least complication if done quickly.  It is roughly the equivalent of receivership in a bankruptcy in that a single owner takes a group of properties from a corporation instead of the court selling off each property to separate individuals.  Both the counties and towns that formerly relied on VDOT for all road maintenance then come then together and sign an agreement to jointly own the entire county road system as a single public corporation for the purpose of engineering and routine maintenance.  This new agency receives the secondary road system preventing the need for individual counties and towns to form separate street departments in each county and town.  Likewise, all counties in West Virginia would form a similar agreement to jointly own their county road system striking a deal with every city and town within the state to assume maintenance of roads within the cities and towns previously administered by WVDOH.  The agreement would be for proportional funding of operations based on population ratio.

To make it easier, only Virginia will be used as an example.  If VDOT splits off the responsibility for secondary roads, the employees and equipment would transfer to the new jointly-owned corporation under authority of Virginia Association of Counties.  This new public corporation would be given a name such as the Virginia Secondary Roads Commission.  Facilities would remain co-located awaiting a decision of whether the Virginia Secondary Roads Commission could then take over routine maintenance of state-owned formerly primary routes or would be required to go their own way.  If the latter is the case, road maintenance previously only handled by VDOT would be split between two separate agencies:

  • VDOT: responsible for construction and maintenance of state routes (formerly state primary routes)
  • Virginia Secondary Roads Commission: responsible for engineering, traffic control and routine maintenance of county and contract town routes (formerly secondary state routes)
    • Note that cities and free towns could join later based on whatever the commission decides

Thus, instead of 93 counties having to take over the secondary road system, one agency will take over the secondary road system from VDOT.  From that point, additional reforms may take place if desired, but they should not be done immediately to allow time to establish the Virginia Secondary Roads Commission.




Even if they have adequate money to build or repair roads, hopefully photos like this demonstrate that most counties and municipalities are nonetheless ill-prepared to assume the entire responsibility for roads.  If the state DOT cannot do it on behalf of the counties then the counties should jointly form their own statewide corporation to provide road maintenance so that counties can focus their funding and limited expertise on road projects leaving the day-to-day duties to an agency better equipped for that responsibility.

A Broader Sweeping Solution

Not all counties and towns will be in support of falling under another single statewide agency.  Not all cities would like to remain independent for road maintenance either.  While maintenance by individual counties should be discouraged or eventually even forbidden as part of the by-laws of the Virginia Secondary Roads Commission, these by-laws may include a clause that allows further local control by giving semi-local autonomy to the large metropolitan areas.  This broader strategy may also include a policy change in regards to cities.  These include:

  • Creation of regional road systems in the three largest regional planning commission areas. 
    • The creation of regional road systems are entirely optional with the region electing to remain with the Virginia Secondary Roads Commission if desired 
    • The regional road systems are designed to allow the larger metropolitan areas to control their own interests separate from the rest of the state.  However, they are still consolidated into one agency across the entire MSA region that includes multiple counties and municipalities.
    • Regional road systems under this approach should be limited to regional planning areas with at least 1 million residents
    • These regional road systems would thus be limited to Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads
    • They would be known as "Regional Road Commissions" (e.g. Northern Virginia Regional Road Commission, Greater Richmond Regional Road Commission, Hampton Roads Regional Road Commission)
    • Regional Road Commissions will be responsible for all surface maintenance of state routes similar to how cities are presently in Virginia
    • The regional road systems also would be responsible for consolidating road maintenance and planning on non-VDOT roads into a single regional entity functioning as a state within a state
    • Construction would remain locally-controlled with counties, cities and towns handling construction funding on all non-VDOT roads
    • Individual counties, cities and towns within the regional planning area would have the option to limit regional road maintenance to non-VDOT roadways designated farm-to-market within that region (mostly arterial and collector)
    • All traffic control within the regional MSA would be maintained by either the regional roads commission or by the Virginia Secondary Roads Commission under contract regardless of public roadway ownership
  • Rural counties and counties outside of these regional planning areas would remain administered by the Virginia Secondary Roads Commission
    • Rural counties would contract all county road maintenance to the VSRC while retaining construction authority
    • The contracting of all road maintenance would be done to adequately pool resources to provide maintenance to nearly the same levels that VDOT provided
  • The permission of independent cities and larger towns to contract all road maintenance with the Virginia Secondary Roads Commission or (if used) regional road commissions depend on what area they fall within
    • Currently VDOT does not allow cities or towns over 2,500 to contract secondary roads to the state.  In cities, VDOT requires that the cities maintain all surface state routes.
    • In this change, all cities and towns of any size would be permitted to contract road maintenance of their own streets to the VSRC or regional road commission
    • VSRC or the regional road commission, whichever is used, would take over maintenance of state-owned roads through the cities and towns on behalf of the same city or town
    • All cities and towns should be required to contract with VSRC or the regional roads commission for traffic control although counties may cover the operations fee if the city or town is too small to finance it
    • Henrico and Arlington Counties may join the Virginia Secondary Roads Commission or smaller regional roads commission.

West Virginia Solution

West Virginia presents a far less complicated scenario since no county in the state has a county population exceeding 100,000 residents.  This means the creation of a regional roads commission should not even remotely be considered.  In West Virginia's case, the solution is as follows if WVDOH devolves county responsibility to the counties:

  • County maintenance rolls over into a statewide public corporation responsible for county roads (in this example the West Virginia County Roads Administration)
  • This new corporation would either be a joint venture between the WV state government and the 55 counties or would be jointly owned by all 55 counties with no state involvement
  • The West Virginia County Roads Administration handles all county road planning, construction and maintenance but provides the option for counties to take over only construction responsibility if they chose to do so.  Maintenance of all county roads is handled by the WVCRA
  • Cities and towns may contract part or all road maintenance with the WVCRA
  • WVDOH may contract with WVCRA for routine maintenance of surface state routes
  • WVDOH may continue to provide traffic control maintenance on all state and county roads under authority of WVCRA as part of a local exchange agreement
  • The state should at minimum cover the operations fee for each county in the cooperative

AN ALTERNATIVE FARM-TO-MARKET APPROACH FOR VIRGINIA AND WEST VIRGINIA

Another approach that may be considered in both states is to simply downsize the secondary systems in both states allowing counties to take over only the least important roads, but with a twist.  In both states, the primary state system is too small to provide any substantial benefit to counties and cities.  What this means is that the two-tiered system would be divided into three tiers: primary, secondary and local.  Since West Virginia primary route mileage is not readily available, Virginia will be used again in the following example.  The alternative approach should be as follows:
  • Primary: existing system of primary state routes
  • Secondary: farm-to-market system constructed and maintained by the state covering all other state routes not classified as primary with a combined ratio of 35% on both systems
  • Local: roadways under direct financial authority of counties, towns or cities
This three-tiered approach does not preclude a transfer of either secondary roads or local roads to a separate cooperative road commission, but it does allow a more orderly transfer of that responsibility.  It was noted above that a huge construction backlog exists in both states on secondary state roads.  What this plan does is obligate the state to improve secondary roads to state standards since they will no longer be directly responsible for roadways of lowest importance.  Local governments under this plan will gain sole financial responsibility for 65% of the road system while VDOT/WVDOH will retain 35% of that responsibility.  

In this plan, local roads are county roads, town roads and city streets that are not financed by the state.  The states would instead provide separate funding sources for these local agencies to use.  This does not mean that maintenance cannot still be contracted to VDOT or WVDOH, but in this case the local agency owns the road and uses their own funding to retain the state as a contractor in lieu of the state actually controlling those roads.  This means that rural counties would retain VDOT as a contractor for their county road maintenance while these counties would not be responsible for financing construction or maintenance on either primary or secondary roads.  

If this strategy is adopted, some important things should be considered:

  • If this plan is adopted as a way to wind down state responsibility for secondary roads, the state legislature should adopt a requirement that all farm-to-market routes must be built or reconstructed to state primary safety standards prior to transfer requiring a significant investment to upgrade rural secondaries 
    • This will require improvements that include shoulder and bridge widening, signage upgrades, guardrail installation, correction of vertical and horizontal alignment safety issues and in some cases relocation of existing secondary roads onto new location
    • Routine maintenance should be transferred to a statewide cooperative (e.g. Virginia Secondary Roads Commission) when improvements are completed NOT to the individual counties, cities and towns
  • If VDOT refuses to contract road maintenance with counties at their own expense, all rural counties should join a statewide public corporation as is proposed with the Virginia Secondary Roads Commission
  • The division of responsibilities may also be as follows:
    • Farm-to-market/secondary state roads are constructed by VDOT, maintained by the Virginia Secondary Roads Commission
    • Local roads are constructed by the counties/cities/towns and maintained by the Virginia Secondary Roads Commission

THE OVERALL PICTURE OF THIS NEW DIVISION OF RESPONSIBILITIES

The plan presented here presents three main options to rescue the road systems of Virginia and West Virginia if and only if either state decides to once again begin transferring these roads back to the counties.  Both systems have been in place over 80 years and work as intended.  However, it is clear that reforms are badly needed for them to continue into the future.  These reforms are summarized as such:

  1. Simple Solution: modification of the existing system to retain state control while introducing local financing
    • VDOT transfers a portion of secondary funding directly to the counties retaining the other portion for routine maintenance
    • Funding matches and additional local-option finance mechanisms are introduced
  2. Sweeping Solution: transfer all secondary roads from VDOT/WVDOH into a statewide corporation in each state jointly owned by the presently VDOT-controlled 93 counties in Virginia and 55 counties in West Virginia previously under state control
  3. A Broader Sweeping Solution: in Virginia, additional reforms may allow the three largest metro areas in Virginia to form their own regional road systems defined within the boundaries of the metropolitan statistical areas while otherwise requiring rural areas to remain under the statewide cooperative.
    • Regional road systems may be formed in metro areas with 1 million plus population in Virginia allowing Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads to operate a metropolitan highway system independent of the statewide corporation
    • All other counties remain with the Virginia Secondary Roads Commission
    • Not proposed for West Virginia since populations are too low
  4. Farm-To-Market Alternative: a farm-to-market approach that splits state responsibility into a farm-to-market and local system while allowing counties to either contract responsibility for their own roads with VDOT or a statewide cooperative.
    • VDOT retains responsibility for 35% of the road system divided into primary and secondary while 65% of overall road system transfers to local agencies
    • VDOT may be responsible only for construction on farm-to-market roads if routine maintenance is transferred to statewide county roads cooperative
    • Counties may still contract road maintenance on locally-owned roads to either VDOT or the cooperative at their own expense depending on which agency maintains farm-to-market roads

The plans above are designed to prevent VDOT and WVDOH from transferring the entire road maintenance responsibility on counties regardless of whether or not they are financially or structurally prepared for that responsibility by providing a safety net that can be used by local governments in either state.  Overall, what this spotlight lays out is that the current approach is an effective strategy that should be retained at least partially.  In addition, unlike other states it will be possible to restructure the system if necessary with minimal disruption if one state agency is split into two in lieu of one agency into many counties.  While reform is certainly needed, it can be done without replacing what exists today with a costlier and substandard alternative.  

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