Friday, July 22, 2016

The Counties and Cities Need A Voice: Why Is There No Dissent On Devolution?

Hearing state legislators, urban planners and local control advocates, they would lead you to believe that everybody is on board with transferring as much authority as possible to the local governments.  Their reasons are different, but the goals are the same: they want the state out of the road business except for building roads and maintaining a few arterials.  The reasons usually are the following:

  • Reducing taxes
    • In this case, it is a political shell game that is done to make it look like that state taxes are being lowered, but the need does not go away.  It just passes the bulk of the financial responsibility onto the local government at higher cost to local taxpayers for lower standards and reduced oversight.
    • The exchange for taking the state out of the picture is higher property taxes, local-option gas taxes, higher sales taxes and higher fees
      • The same funding division can still produce state-level maintenance as was done in Virginia
    • State payments to local governments are typically drastically reduced 
      • State governments with centralized road systems often divert as much as 35-45% of state funding to maintain local-level roads, but this total reduces to around 10-25% when the responsibility is passed on to the local governments.
  • Home rule advocacy
    • Home rule advocates believe that no problem should ever be handled by any government larger than a city or county and that all activities should be solely controlled by whatever agency is directly in charge.  
      • They do not care about the quality of the roads thinking instead in terms of quantity (e.g. "We need to repave our roads NOW!").  
      • They care about having absolute local authority to decide everything, which works only when the local government is very large in population thus has the economies of scale and resources to do it..  
      • They are blind to the fact that local corruption exists, and authority to oversee roads is literally held by one or two people on a local level that may or may not be capable of doing an acceptable job
        • e.g. "Joey Blalock was hired in 1992 by the county and is the only person in charge of this department.  He has managed the sign shop since he graduated from high school.  He was hired by his cousin, the county commissioner, who is not retiring until this next election."
      • Checks and balances are poor when road responsibility is fragmented like that.
        • The state government is not likely to provide direct assistance such as funding county engineers or providing professional review of local programs if the state has a very high number of small jurisdictions to deal with
        • It is much more difficult to enforce state or federal law when there are so many small local governments doing the same thing
    • Home rule advocates refuse to consider any partnerships that allow the local government to contract road maintenance with any other agency while maintaining local autonomy.  This includes:
      • State forces (state DOT or other state agency)
      • Other local agencies on a higher or lower level (city/town/township-county)
      • Other local agencies at the same level (county-county, city-city) for road maintenance at their own expense
      • They write laws, usually at the state level, either banning the practice or making it very difficult to do
      • Regional cooperatives are not typically included, but it is unknown if they would ultimately ban the practice if they attempted to form
  • A Big State Backlog
    • In some states, the backlog of construction and maintenance never seems to improve and in states with large levels of state responsibility such as Pennsylvania and Virginia that is even more true.  
    • The real issue is that local financing should be introduced as a supplement to build and improve less important routes, but home rule advocates would rather transfer the entire responsibility of roads to the local governments as a condition of local financing of road projects than allow the state to continue to maintain lower-level state highways while allowing counties or municipalities to construct them
    • States unfortunately use local financing as a stepping stone to forcing the local agencies to take over the roads instead of viewing it as a partnership
    • The red tape involved to build a road spikes costs for road projects reducing the number of roads built and improved.  Many believe the local governments can do it faster and cheaper (which they are usually correct) but that it means the local government can and should do everything (which is not the issue).  However, faster and cheaper does not always mean it is done well as local road projects are often mismanaged due to lack of proper inspection and never completed as planned.
    • Most local agencies lack the qualified staff to administer road projects or inspect maintenance meaning that the local responsibility should be limited to funding (hands off) except in a few cases
  • A Financial Crisis
    • In Florida, Virginia and South Carolina the proposed transfer to the local governments was generally caused by the state gas tax being too low to manage the size of the road inventory.
    • Home rule advocates seize on this opportunity to railroad a devolution effort through the legislature.
    • The public failed to understand the implications of what this involved as "home rule" is not understood in the way that "the state dumping thousands of miles on rural counties to maintain" is
  • Private Sector Pressure
    • The private sector does not like working with state government when incorporating new developments into existing roads
    • State agencies tend to be too insular and entrenched making them difficult to work with and less innovative than the private sector
    • The private sector is also aware that counties and cities have few standards and less muscle against the actions of private developers who are sometimes unscrupulous in their actions by building substandard roads and improperly tying into existing public roads
    • Local governments are typically more likely to take over maintenance of a road in a new development that is not built to code than the state government
  • Corruption
    • A high profile event involving the state managing one or more road projects turns the public sour against state government.  This is used as a strategy to promote the more "ethical" approach of transferring roads to the local agencies who are more "accountable".  It is a straw man argument, but it was very effective in eliminating a brand new secondary state highway system in Georgia in the 1950's.
      • Corruption should indeed not be tolerated, but the solution is to transfer management to a private firm and fire/prosecute government officials not to transfer the responsibility from one level of government to another
    • Corruption also exists on a local level, but it does not receive the same amount of press or visibility as state-level corruption
      • This is why decentralizing the responsibility to stop corruption is akin to escaped convicts all hiding in different caves.  It is harder to catch, but it does not mean it is not there.
    • Many in South Carolina are using the same argument in regards to the State Infrastructure Bank as a means of correlating potential mismanagement of construction funds with a high level of state responsibility.  It is a false comparison, but it has been effective in convincing many.
      • If state government is abusing public funds, transferring only part of that responsibility still means state government is organized and abusing public funds.  
  • Restricting Use
    • Some state DOT's often will refuse to maintain roads that are not open to trucks forcing the locality to succumb to taking over the road.
      • This is often a ploy used in states with mileage caps to turn back roads with little resistance
    • State DOT's are also too restrictive on standards
      • This often clashes with local design standards meaning drawn out talks to work out differences in roadway projects, including streetscapes
      • Usually if it is a downtown area or dense urban corridor, the state will transfer the road to the local government or reroute the highway instead of caving to local demands.
    • State DOT's force counties and cities to take over roads if the local agency wants the project done faster instead of just letting them complete the project and return it to the state
      • This ploy was used to force Cobb County to take over GA 176.
    • Some state roads run through urban neighborhoods where local residents do not want through traffic using the streets
      • In this case, the state often transfers the road back to the local government instead of just making the route unsigned to discourage through traffic.
    • Having two classes of state roadways helps minimize the impact of restricting use in that roadways classified as secondary (like Virginia) or secret (like Maryland) typically are more flexible about restricting access to commercial traffic while having only one class of highways almost always demands full roadway transfer.

All of the above is further exacerbated by state DOT's who seem to almost unilaterally have an iron-fisted policy that they want to turn as many roads to the local agencies as possible as if that is some sort of solution to traffic woes.  In theory, this seems reasonable if only

  • Local governments were structurally prepared for that responsibility (most are not)
  • The state is willing to continue to sign local trunkline routes with route and directional guide signs so as to distribute traffic patterns in an effective way regardless of ownership (almost all are are not)

Reality has proven that the vast majority of counties and municipalities across the country are definitely not ever ready to take on more roadway responsibilities.  It is as if local governments are treated like growing children coming of age graduating into home rule if they prove that they can buy a bulldozer on their own.  With states, population does not matter but with counties and cities the population and tax base very much factor in to whether a local road will be built and maintained to sound engineering standards.  While there is definitely a solid argument in reducing state involvement in road projects that are not along major routes, the purpose of a state DOT is not just to build roads.  They were created because it was confirmed that local governments really were too small to handle that responsibility structurally or financially.  Here, we have been trying to understand who is behind this push to force local governments to take on more and more roads and why this view has been so popular since the 1970's.

The sight of something like this on a local road is what happens when devolution is the rule.  It is clear on this small county road that the road department does not have an employee hired in traffic control that has any idea what they are doing.

From the 1930's to the 1950's, the idea that the state could provide services for counties and even cities was hotly debated as it was proven that most local agencies, especially counties, were incapable of providing high quality public services nor properly planning a transportation network.  It is true that counties and cities have improved over the years as the state governments are more heavily subsidizing them than in the past and regional planning has helped to steer local road priorities, but what local governments may be able to provide in quantity they cannot typically provide in quality.  What that means is that in recent years they have been great at constructing high-standard, smooth roads but not so great at providing technical routine maintenance.


The idea of local control is really something that strikes at the whole urban/rural divide.  As rural areas lose population and urban areas become more populous, the interest in collective road solutions is waning as urban areas increase in power and rural areas lack the clout to fight these efforts.  In addition, rural areas despite their troubles have been resisting any new efforts to provide centralization of services despite the obvious benefits they would receive.  The feeling is that because an urban county with 500,000 people or city with 50,000 people can handle road responsibility reasonably well that somehow a rural county or small population city is okay feasting on scraps.

When those with the political power are looking at roads from the perspective of their subdivision, they see a state government overwhelmed with too much responsibility and view local government as universally capable.  They forget there is a huge difference between a county with a population larger than Vermont and a county with a population no larger than a township in Vermont.  They think a big check from the state government should be adequate to take care of rural needs ignoring the fact that rural roads are often extremely unsafe because of the lack of technical expertise needed to operate them.  They may not be worried about it, but it is these same rural counties where urban dwellers escape for scenic vistas and outdoor recreation.  These people are likewise not familiar with the roads nor their conditions.  They drive these roads on the weekend, and sometimes they die in a car wreck on them because they failed to see that curve ahead (because there was no sign for it), cannot see the road at night because of faded lines or ram into an unsafe guardrail that likely has not been maintained in 40 years.  Maybe even the bridge they cross collapses, because the county lacked the resources to maintain and inspect it often or thoroughly enough.

The kinds of things that happen when you expect a rural county to handle a job only suited for highly centralized urban counties or state DOT's.  Photo by Free Brick Productions.


The point is that centralization works.  It does not work perfectly, but it is a very effective tool to even the playing field between rural and urban areas, it promotes higher standards and it is cost-efficient.  It is also effective at making sure that rogue counties and cities who have the resources yet do not properly manage their own infrastructure are not left in charge of the entire process.  It is not unusual to see cities and counties in metropolitan areas of Atlanta, Nashville or Dallas with shoddy road standards, so why are they still being permitted to do so?  Township roads in New England and the Midwest are almost universally substandard regardless of regional population because that responsibility is heavily fragmented.  A township with 1,000 residents is certainly not capable of maintaining any road to anywhere near the standards that the law purportedly requires.  Centralization, on the other hand, provides the service levels of large population cities and counties to rural areas that cannot do nearly as much on their own, and it provides cost savings and higher standards to high population areas who also benefit from the economies of scale provided by centralization.  In highly centralized states, there is an expert at every level to handle technical matters while in decentralization it is difficult to find experts to review and supervise either state or local work.  While some local agencies have figured this out, the cost of doing this work correctly is much higher than if it was handled by a larger agency, and it does not need to be.


Over the years, local agencies continuously begged the states not to dump an enormous responsibility on them, and the states only responded by delaying the inevitable until they could find a way to pacify the counties and municipalities with a promise, often hollow, of more money and availability of vague state technical resources to the local governments.  With no voice of dissent other than the localities, the states ultimately backhanded them with a new unfunded mandate.  The amount the states spend per mile on administering county roads is often considerably higher than state-aid provided to the local governments.  While it is true that the states do need more money to build expensive road projects and that primary routes need to be prioritized, this does not call for dumping the entire responsibility on the local governments.  It calls for reforming the system in a way that the state becomes a service provider instead of an owner: in other words a partnership.  A partnership does not have a strict hierarchical structure.  It shares and combines certain elements where it makes the most sense and the best results can be achieved while it entrusts local agencies with others to do more when they are capable and where they have proven to be most effective.

South Carolina

South Carolina presently has a state road system that is 63% under state control.  Close to 50% of that responsibility includes state maintained secondary roads.  A recent, but delayed plan was to trim back 19,000 miles of those roads reducing that responsibility to 34%, but who is to say if that is done that they might not eventually come back for the remainder?  The quote below is from the South Carolina Association of Counties and it highlights the concerns often expressed on this site in a way that is succinct and very well-said:

Excerpts from:
  • Many counties do not have the equipment to perform the road maintenance work being called for. DOT already has much of this equipment.
  • Proponents say that counties could bid out road maintenance to private contractors and would not need the equipment. Many counties do not have an engineer on staff to draft the specifications for these maintenance projects, evaluate the bids received, or inspect the work once performed. DOT has an engineering department and a procurement staff to bid work out which DOT cannot perform. If the procurement process is too slow, then DOT procurement needs to be examined.
  • Proponents say that they will give the money for the maintenance to the CTCs [county transportation committees]. Thirty-six of the CTCs are appointed by the legislative delegation and they bear no responsibility for poor decisions. In addition, state law requires at least 25 percent of the CTC funds be spent on state roads — many CTCs spend well over half of the CTC money on the state system.
  • Most, if not all, of the funding formulas created by the General Assembly are changed after they are created. The C Funds statute, which is how the CTCs are funded, has changed numerous times. Once roads are handed over, there is little guarantee that the funding will be either adequate or can be relied upon to remain adequate in the future.
Furthermore, the release stated:

"The assertion was also made that the counties could do the work cheaper. There was very little push back to those arguments and if you do not directly engage your senator in a discussion with the facts, there is a great likelihood that the idea to dump roads on the counties will gain support in the Senate. The stated reason for going to this approach is that the decisions made by the State Infrastructure Bank and Department of Transportation (DOT) were poor and that better decisions would be made locally by CTCs and counties."

Note that a mythology is created that corruption is the culprit when in fact lack of funds are the problem.  This same argument was used in every other attempt to force counties to take on more roads, especially in Alabama and Florida over 35 years ago.

Also, the rural/urban divide is CLEARLY highlighted in this excerpt:

"Specifically, Charleston, Anderson, and York counties have been named as counties which want the roads. Please contact your House members and let them know that your county does not want the roads, or in the alternative, your county council must have the option of whether or not to accept state roads."

All three of those counties have some of the highest populations in the state.  Anderson has 192,810 (2014), Charleston has 372,803 (2013) and York has 245,346 (2014).  Should three of the highest population counties in the state affect the livelihood of rural counties?  Six counties have populations under 20,000!  Should three high population urban counties decide the fate of 43 other counties?


Virginia is presently one of four states that has county roads primarily under authority of the state DOT.  Here are a series of quotes regarding devolution from local leaders.  Even high population urban counties such as Prince William, Fairfax and Stafford accept that this will be a financial hardship to manage:

  • Prince William County
    • From:"Prince William County Board of Supervisor Corey Stewart, a Republican, says if the Governor and General Assembly push this idea, it's the local taxpayers that would suffer.  "It will cause a massive tax increase all over Northern Virginia, not just Prince William, but also Loudon, Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria," says Stewart."  
  • Fairfax County
    • From: "Transportation Secondary Road Devolution - Oppose any legislation that would require the transfer of secondary road construction and maintenance responsibilities to counties, especially if these efforts are not accompanied with corresponding revenue enhancements. While there are insufficient resources to adequately meet the maintenance and improvement needs of secondary roads within the Commonwealth, the solution to this problem is not to simply transfer these responsibilities to local governments that have neither the resources nor the expertise to fulfill them. Further, oppose any legislative or regulatory moratorium on the transfer of newly constructed secondary roads to VDOT for the purposes of ongoing maintenance."
  • Stafford County
    • "Road Bill Angers Localities"
    • Excerpt from article quoting two county administrators: "We don’t want to get into road maintenance, period,” Barnes said. “I don’t think we ought to be in the road maintenance business.”  They’re both concerned about a budget item—separate from the transportation bill—that calls for a study of “devolution” of local roads from a state responsibility to a local one. Localities can already choose to take over their roads, but they don’t want to be forced into it.  “Devolution scares us, because road maintenance is a state function,” Romanello said.  Local governments fear the state will burden them with more responsibility without giving them more money to pay for it.  Even if devolution came with a monetary commitment, Romanello said, he’s reluctant to trust it.“That’s a commitment that’s only good as long as there’s a state budget in force, and that is what is so scary about devolution is that if we’re required to take over hundreds of lane miles of roads for maintenance, and the state’s not in a position to make a long-term commitment to local governments to help defray that cost,” he said.  Barnes expressed similar concerns, noting that localities would have to add staff to maintain roads.  “Devolution is not something we really want to embrace,” he said. “The funding for the road construction kind of fell off to nothing. So what’s the future of the road maintenance?"


Texas has for many years maintained a secondary highway system known as "farm-to-market" or "ranch-to-market" roads.  Combined with primary state routes, Texas's highway system is comprised of 26% of the state's road inventory and is the largest state highway system in the country by mileage.  Unfortunately, TxDOT is looking to begin unloading as many of these secondary state routes as they can deciding the easiest place to start is with the higher population cities and counties.  Their plan includes the transfer of 1,900 miles of state roads.  The absurd aspect of this is that the cities are responsible for construction on all farm-to-market roads (officially "urban roads") with the state only providing routine maintenance services.

In regards to this sneaky plan, here is an excerpt from "Dallas joins opposition to TxDOT plan to transfer maintenance of some state roads to local governments" by Tom Benning:

"Rawlings and Dallas City Council Member Vonciel Jones Hill wrote to TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson on Thursday that the city “strenuously opposes” the plan to hand over control of 1,900 miles of roads to urban cities and counties across Texas.  The extra maintenance costs for those affected local governments would total $165 million a year statewide. And the Dallas officials said in the letter to Wilson that the plan was “unfair” and “leans heavily toward double taxation.” 

 “This proposal will save taxpayers no money since it merely shifts costs from one branch of government to another,” Rawlings and Hill wrote. “Taxpayers would not pay less. Their money would simply be spent at a different level of government.” 

Fort Worth and the Texas Municipal League have also publicly voiced their dislike of the proposal. And Texas Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff, an Arlington businessman, said he has reservations about the idea."

Also, an interesting piece was written by a Texas law firm Hoffman and Kaliser, PC:

"Specifically, Texas traffic accidents can be caused by inadequate road maintenance, shoddy construction or poor design. Not uncommonly, those responsible may be relatively difficult to sue because they are public entities like units of federal, state, county or local governments. Texas law regarding the duty of governmental units to maintain roads is complicated by issues of sovereign immunity, or the ability of people to sue the government, a very complex legal concept. Determining governmental duties to warn of dangers and to repair "premise defects" in roads, the extent of those duties and whether the government has any discretion in the matter all may be issues in a personal injury lawsuit. Many are at risk: large commercial vehicles, SUVs, vans, buses, automobiles and motorcycles, not to mention bicycles and pedestrians. Examples of potentially dangerous problems from poor design, construction or maintenance include: 

  • Debris or spilled liquid.
  • Potholes, cracks, shifting road surfaces and pits.
  • Slippery paving, marking or repair materials like those with metal, plastic or rubber components.
  • Inadequate traction or dangerous pavement ridges.
  • Poorly designed bridges, curves or grades.
  • Unsafe posted speed limits.
  • Inadequate roadside barriers.
  • Poorly placed or designed signs.
  • Signs or poles that do not safely give when struck.
  • Inadequate lighting.
  • Failure to warn of hazards.
  • Improper gravel grading.
  • Inadequate shoulders.
  • Missing or faded lane stripes. 
  • Tall grass or other vegetation that blocks vision.
  • Malfunctioning lights, signals or warning devices. 
  • And more." 

All of these issues above are very common on county roads and municipal streets in Texas, although Texas's sheer size calls for a regional instead of state-controlled solution.


It has been many years since Florida forced the counties to take over maintenance of 11,000 miles of state secondary roads.  The transition happened after legislation was passed in 1977 where counties were required to take on both construction and maintenance of secondary roads between 1980 and 1982.  The combined system comprised of almost 20% of the highway system.  Today is it less than 10%.

Excerpts from "Flagler Commissioners Oppose DOT Plans to Shift Road Designations, Maintenance Responsibilities" by the Daytona Beach Morning Journal: May 31, 1978:

"...and yet the DOT is throwing this [structurally unsound bridge] down the county's throat when we won't have the revenue to maintain SR 11"

This short quote highlights local concerns about the inability of county governments to manage large-scale roadway infrastructure.  At the time, Flagler County had a population of less than 10,000 residents!  They certainly were NOT prepared at the time.  As this example shows, the roadways in Florida turned to the local level were not just low-volume roads.  Many were highly-traveled arterial and collector roads that were never suited for local control.  While Flagler County has grown dramatically since the early 80's (ten times the population of 1980), many rural counties in northern and inland parts of Florida have suffered under this system.  Florida has ramped up their efforts to help counties with their "3R" program that has brought many of these former routes back into compliance as well as expanded local funding sources since the early 1980's.  Nonetheless, spot treatments do not provide the consistent results that a large state agency providing routine maintenance provides.  While Florida's system never did provide comprehensive state-aid to counties, it certainly relieved them of a much larger chunk of the highly traveled roads.

North Carolina

North Carolina is famous for being the father of centralization for local road maintenance.  They were the first state to assume control of every public road in the state previously maintained by counties and townships.  Townships were dissolved and a new classification of secondary state roads was created that resulted in the entire system of county roadways now being administered solely by the state.  Despite being known as the "good roads state" and providing one of the best maintained road networks in the nation since 1931, a periodic push to force counties to take on these roads continues to resurface.

In 2009, State Senator Bob Rucho pushed SB 758 mandating that counties take control of all secondary state roads returning them to the individual counties.  This would mean that one agency would be replaced by 100 meaning a very inefficient and poorly run road system.  While North Carolina is a fast growing state, this population is concentrated heavily in cities located along I-85.  Many areas of the state remain economically depressed from the collapse of tobacco and textiles, and other counties have a very low population.  Three counties in the state have under 10,000 residents and many others are low in population.  Who really, honestly believes these postage stamp counties will do a better job than NCDOT?

Two excerpts from Brunswick News entitle "Commissioners Oppose Transfer of Secondary Roads to County Control" really highlights the rural-urban divide on this issue:

"The resolution opposes any move that would reduce the amount of state funding coming in to maintain and improve secondary roads. It also opposes any move by the General Assembly that would force the county to have to pay for the roads with sales or property tax revenues."

"The bill is being pushed by Mecklenburg County.  Brunswick Commissioners' Chairman Bill Sue said at the board's agenda meeting that Mecklenburg doesn't have a lot of secondary roads because most of it is urban [added note: within the boundaries of the city of Charlotte].  "So they don't give a hoot," he said"

Harnett County passed a resolution opposing it for pretty much the same reasons as South Carolina above: 
An excerpt here states their concerns with actual figures: "WHEREAS, without the continuation of existing State revenue streams to pay for road upkeep and construction, Harnett County would be forced to raise its property tax rate 11.3 mills to keep up the current level of funding ($7,645,843) needed to maintain our existing roads; and WHEREAS, Harnett County does not have the equipment or capital to take on this massive additional responsibility."

These examples above promote the idea that devolution is in a sense a form of elitism.  It is pushed mostly by urban legislators in prosperous urban counties who think that by depriving rural areas of state-aid that they can do far more than the state DOT can in an area that is more economically promising.  This logic is unsound in that rural areas will continue to be subsidized regardless, but that the standards are what will change.  How far that dollar can be stretched will be reduced, and a responsibility handled by professionals will be handed over to people who have no idea what they are doing.  The champions of devolution, urban counties, may also not do so well as they will find that properly staffing a local highway agency proves difficult, especially when they discover that the county tax base is being chipped away at by new and expanding municipalities who decide the county is not doing a good enough job like in many of the metropolitan areas of the Sunbelt.  The state DOT will also have to make cuts causing them to lose purchasing power and key staff that help the state do a far better job than they would with less funding and responsibility.  

If these urbanized counties have needs that outstrip what the state provides, the solution is to propose to the legislature an ability to raise more funding on a local level.  Regional and local sales taxes, local option gas taxes and bonds coupled with a property tax increase to fund major infrastructure upgrades make more sense than thinking that if the state drops thousands of miles of roads that the largess of state funding will flow their way without any consequences.  In no state is that ever true. What is true, however, is that every local agency does need some financial authority to finance new roadway infrastructure beyond what the state can afford.  It is always a fair compromise to allow local government to plan and build infrastructure while relying on the experts at the state DOT to maintain it for them.  What is not okay is to use that as a springboard to force the myriad of tiny local agencies rich and poor to handle it all themselves.  Why is it appear that hardly anybody besides the counties and municipalities themselves are even saying this?  

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