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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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
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.
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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