While local agencies may enjoy broad powers to construct and maintain roads as they see fit, this approach is only effective in high population counties with properly organized highway agencies. In all of Georgia's 159 counties, the vast majority are rural or very rural with 75% of the state's population in 8% of the state's land area. This means that 92% of the state falls within a rural area thus the vast majority of counties are nowhere near prepared for the full responsibility of road maintenance. Of this total:
- 6 total counties have a population that exceeds 250,000
- Note that two of those counties have recently seen significant chunks of the county's tax base divided up into new cities that took with them much or all (in the case of Fulton's) population meaning that the county provides little to no municipal services
- 38 total counties have a population over 60,000
- 32 total counties have populations under 10,000 residents
- 86 total counties have populations under 25,000 residents
- 3.8% of counties have populations adequate to operate a full-service highway agency
- 23.8% of counties have populations adequate to support a highway agency without substantial state-aid
- 54.0% of counties have populations much too low to be able to effectively operate a local highway agency with available local resources
With these statistics, why are all 159 counties running their own highway department? Most are not capable of doing a good job even when they put their very best efforts forward, because they simply lack the technical expertise, resources, equipment or manpower to do so. What about the 550 cities? While some of those contract with counties, most are no better off when the county itself is too small to provide proper road maintenance standards on behalf of the cities. Of those that are not, the vast majority cannot efficiently run an entirely independent street maintenance operation.
- Combined populations would likely remain too low.
- When at least 100,000 residents are needed to make a combined county work, it would take more than a two county merger in a rural area to make that happen.
- The counties that proposed merging were already very low in population meaning the combined county would still be extremely low in population (likely under 10,000 residents)
- Combining counties, especially in higher population areas, would only result in an uptick in municipal divisions making consolidation into a larger county actually increase the level of government
- This would just further drill down road responsibilities and increase costs unless the state government made municipal divisions extremely difficult
- The consolidation under this method becomes a political decision instead of a technical decision. It does not address the root of the problem.
- Merging counties on any grand scale is not a realistic proposal.
- Even Taliaferro County with less than 3,000 residents has not seriously put forth any plan to merge with an adjacent county
- New larger counties with very large land areas would not be popular with residents of rural areas
- Urbanized counties would use this as an excuse to further divide into smaller counties such as Fulton and DeKalb
- The number of combined counties would not be low enough to make any real difference
- Effective county government has populations comparable to state government. Very few counties would have populations of 500,000 or more
- Only one or two would have that population concentrated in unincorporated areas.
A BETTER SOLUTION
- As a division of state government that is under limited regulatory authority of GDOT, but operates otherwise independent of GDOT
- As a jointly-owned unit of all counties and cities statewide brokered by the Georgia Association of County Commissioners, Georgia Municipal Association and Georgia State Legislature
- As part of the agreement to form the cooperative highway agency, participation would be required in order to implement the program by all counties to some extent
- All counties would be required to transfer engineering, installation and maintenance of traffic control and safety improvements to the cooperative unit (GLRC or DLMSA)
- Rural counties with populations under 50,000 residents would be required to contract all routine road maintenance to the cooperative thus transferring employees, equipment and facilities to the cooperative (74.2% of counties)
- Counties over 50,000 would be given the option to keep their own highway departments or to transfer the entire operation to the cooperative
- Cities would also be required to participate in that traffic control would be managed by GLRC or DLMSA. Rural cities would be encouraged to transfer all street maintenance to the cooperative.
- The state could provide incentives to joining the cooperative such as subsidizing operations fees
The Georgia Local Roads Commission or Division of Local Maintenance & State Aid would have the purpose of administering, not building roads. That means that engineering services would be provided, maintenance would be provided and some resurfacing might be possible with that funding. However, construction including designing or building roads would remain a local matter. Rural counties could contract with the cooperative at their own expense for construction engineering, hire a private firm or use GDOT.
- The Contract Method
- Each member agency provides an operations fee if it is not otherwise subsidized by GDOT. The operations fee would be based on the population ratio covering only costs of employees, equipment and facilities. It would not cover any actual construction or maintenance.
- Each member agency then makes its own budget thus providing a retainer for the cooperative to work with.
- For instance, Floyd County provides $225,000 in FY 2019. The agency may spend up to that retainer, but may not exceed it without permission from the county. The county then reimburses the agency for what is actually spent that year and what is not spent is rolled over to the next fiscal year.
- In this method, the cooperative sets a projected budget and presents it to the participating local agencies based on a sum of what each participating agency is willing to spend in that fiscal year
- The ratio each local agency pays is based on the ratio of agency population (based on 10 year census) divided by population of all participating agencies
- The cooperative will be legally obligated to spend in each county no more than what the county or city paid in.
- Set Attrition
- This means a hiring freeze is put into place immediately until employment levels fall to necessary levels
- Keeping titles, wages and positions will be better for morale and will help to combine talents and ideas
- New employees will be hired as an employee of the cooperative in a fully contracted county and not the individual county and city since direct local responsibility for roads will be diminished or eliminated
- This means that municipal and county departments should be combined into a single operation
- Small population counties should be joined with neighboring counties where practical
Road maintenance is a complex operation that takes a significant amount of taxpayer money. A strategy that is local will keep the road usually in adequate repair, but the costs are higher and the standards are lower. It is impossible to coordinate plans, get the most bang for your buck or have frequent enough maintenance when you entrust that responsibility to so many local jurisdictions. Traffic control especially suffers when handled on a local level, and at the very least that should be centralized. The idea of combining all road maintenance into a statewide cooperative is designed to bring all road maintenance operations into balance so that everything is more consistent, more uniform and a backlog of needed work is reduced or eliminated. Furthermore, it allows local agencies to have access to equipment and materials that they otherwise would not have without depending on the state, contractors or expensive consultants.
Since regional agreements of only 10-15 counties might be difficult for local governments to financially manage, a statewide cooperative might be the ideal solution. With costs very minimal for participation due to the high rate of participation, local agencies could partner up with each other to provide the best roads at the least cost creating for themselves an agency that provides the same level of centralization that a state DOT can provide. Compare the cost of one PTOE engineer (assuming $100,000/year) for Dawson County. In a region with 13 counties (per the Regional Roads Plan), the cost to the county would be $3,613. However, that same engineer, assuming universal participation of all cities and counties, would drop to $229. Which plan is more likely to be feasible in a rural area?
While most likely to be used in rural areas, this plan may be the compromise needed so that rural areas can pool resources over a wider area while more concentrated areas like the Atlanta suburbs may operate separately. Either way, this plan maintains a division of powers between GDOT and the local governments while lightening the burdens on local governments to maintain a huge responsibility: over 100,000 miles of roads or 86% of the road system.