Friday, April 21, 2017

The Steps to Creating a Regional Road System

The idea of a regional government agency maintaining roads is a new and entirely experimental concept.  While State and Local Road Reform believes that it will be successful beyond expectations if laid out correctly, the bureaucracy involved in creating it may be difficult, but the struggle to find 3 or more partners to test out the concept continues.  From small government politicians who view any consolidation efforts with suspicion to local governments who are reluctant to relinquish any control for the benefit of taxpayers or service quality, any kind of effort that joins multiple government agencies to provide a single service for something that has never been tried will be difficult to achieve.

The best way to begin a regional concept is to start small and then start putting the pieces together.  It should also be generally noted that a regional road system is presented pretty much one of two ways:

  1. An umbrella organization jointly-funded combining a portion of as little as one to all departments into one entity
    • Regional schools, libraries, parks and water systems already exist, but for some reason roads are never done this way
    • With roads this would involve either a traffic control cooperative or full maintenance to achieve those benefits
  2. A highway system where multiple agencies combine resources to create their own department of transportation overseeing road maintenance in multiple cities and counties
    • This is more of a "farm-to-market" strategy where multiple local agencies decide that certain roads serve a regional purpose and jointly fund the maintenance of those roads
    • A version of this already exists in states with townships where the county highway department is a regional agency designed to relieve townships and municipalities of the direct cost associated with higher classification roadways

It is important to note that when a regional road system begins, any consolidation of local road departments comes later.  That consolidation must be limited to certain conditions and should not happen until the core regional highway system is fully established and working.  Before anything else is done, a logical framework must be established.  As mentioned, this framework already exists in states that have active townships, but it does not exist in states where the county is the only functioning government entity in an unincorporated area and townships do not exist.

The first thing to realize is that a regional road plan is not likely to be adopted on any acceptable level in a rural area unless it is part of a broader strategy.  While a gentleman's agreement might exist between two counties or cities within the counties for services, it is neither a formal agreement nor is it binding.  Such agreements are also likely to be overlooked by policy planners who can promote regional coordination of services.  Handshake agreements typically dissolve over political disputes or because population increases make the agreement no longer financially necessary.  Typically such agreements are established not out of the drive for efficiency or better services but because of either an extremely small tax base or harsh economic conditions that force a joint agreement.  Rarely are these agreements for road maintenance, and they hardly ever exist outside of areas with very low populations.  A broader strategy would require a large number of counties to combine services meaning that, unlike in an urban area, the rural regional road system would cover a considerably large geographic area: often similarly sized to New England states.

Regional services do sometimes exist in urban areas, but also rarely for road maintenance.  The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority is one example covering four counties in Northern Virginia.  Regional school districts are rarer, and most agreements usually relate to utilities.  One noted regional school district is Randolph-Clay High School, a joint high school between the two otherwise separate school districts in Randolph and Clay Counties in Georgia.  Even this joint venture seems to be born in desperation.  Randolph has 7,719 residents and Clay has 3,183.  Union and Towns County, GA once shared a jail, but a dispute in 1995 led to both counties having to build their own jails at great expense to the taxpayers.  Transit agencies tend to be the most common regional services, but they are usually operated by a union of local agencies and not typically supervised by the states involved nor the federal government.  Clearly, regionalism has never gained any broad support, and the major reason is that it has never been built on a consistent, solid framework.  This framework would require a clear plan built on specific rules and consistent parameters and would work best when sponsored by state government with state laws that dictate responsibilities, boundaries, divisions of responsibility and funding.

Considering the murky history of regionalism, a regional plan must be developed that has clear goals and iron-clad rules in an area where other public officials and media will take notice.  Thus, a regional road system must ideally be developed as an urban plan in a high population area.  It must be public, and it must be a major and permanent change.  It cannot be hidden inside the walls of a rickety courthouse in a county with less than 4,000 residents.  It must be a game-changing strategy that gains steam and evolves over a relatively short period of time.  The steps will thus be described:

  1. Initial Agreement: a high-population local agency contracts with at least two other bordering high-population entities
    • A single, high population county begins a pilot project to obtain the rights to maintain traffic control on major surface streets within the limits of at least two cities and towns either within the county or in a bordering suburban city or town
    • Bordering suburban cities or towns jointly contract traffic control services with the intent on recruiting more bordering cities
    • The success of the traffic control pilot is important before the next step is taken
  2. Further Recruitment: the pilot region attempts to contract with additional cities, towns or counties within the same region
    • Ideally, this strategy restricts the agreement to a specific planning region, but cities, towns and counties in bordering regions are acceptable partners until the region becomes more clearly defined
  3. Expansion/Transfer of Powers: once the region is established, negotiations begin to transfer more responsibilities to the regional road agency
    • One strategy involves the creation of a highway system where certain roads are the sole responsibility of the region with financing on a per-mile basis charged to the member agency
    • Another involves the consolidation of all local road agencies within the regional boundaries into a regional DOT after an agreement is made on how much each partner is willing to contribute for operations and for routine maintenance
    • Many agencies within the region may choose to retain only the traffic control agreement keeping road maintenance separate
      • they should not be forced to change to the full maintenance model
      • however, they should be encouraged to at least allowing certain roads and streets to be solely the responsibility of the region
  4. Promotion: if desirable results are achieved from the creation of a consolidated regional DOT, recruit other counties, cities and towns in other regions to form either their own regional systems or a larger cooperative
    • This is where member agencies that are outside the planning region attempt to recruit bordering counties, cities and townships to join the cooperative
    • If enough cities/towns/townships outside the planning region form a large enough population to operate separate from the initial region, they should split off from the first region
    • However, if the bordering region is in a rural area, they may choose to instead develop a statewide cooperative that allows rural areas to pool resources statewide instead of within the region itself
    • Promote the concept to trade organizations  
  5. Legality: this is where the regions that exist transfer from informal agreements into formal agreements by pursuing a change in the state's legal code to make the regions permanent
    • The state develops a set of laws to encode the agreements, terms, funding methods, division of powers and boundaries
    • The state then helps broker other agreements across the state where many counties and municipalities have chosen to opt out.
    • The state also creates added incentives by agreeing to transfer funding from the state level to the regions to help offset operational costs associated with operating a regional road system
    • Regional highway agencies thus become partially independent of local agencies allowing them to begin to offer additional services, unify funding and develop unified standards thus making them operate as a "state within a state"
  6. Establishment: this is where the regional road system is now an official means of providing road maintenance statewide in lieu of the state or local governments
    • The regional road system means a multi-county, multi-jurisdictional maintenance authority in charge of maintenance of higher classification county roads, traffic control on all roadway classifications and/or contracted to provide maintenance on roads in many other jurisdictions
    • Regional road responsibility is for maintenance only with construction funding retained on a local level unless otherwise encoded by the state or agreed to on a regional basis
  7. Further Reforms: this is where the regional road system has been established as an entity capable of providing road maintenance services similar to the state meaning that restructuring happens among many agencies:
    • Counties, townships and municipalities will be able to contract all road maintenance to the region at their own expense
    • Regions will either swap services with the state (see the Local Exchange Plan) or contract to provide all road maintenance on state roads on behalf of the state DOT in exchange for per-mile funding
    • The state highway system is restructured to transfer more funding and responsibility to the regions

It is important to note the issues that local agencies face, and one of those is the inability to obtain adequate populations to run a high standard road system.  A political hiccup on a county level or weak laws in regards to annexation by cities can quickly drain a fast-growing county of resources, and some states such as Tennessee and Texas have weak annexation laws and strongly favor municipalities over counties for transportation funding.  Likewise, cities and towns can be too small and/or landlocked thus unable to expand to provide adequate services.  Issues such as this have resulted in many county-city mergers: a bad policy that has often been regretted by the citizens of those areas.  City-county mergers such as Nashville or Jacksonville are also a strong barrier to true regionalism making the combined entity more insular in regards to the needs of the region as a whole.

Consider, for instance, Montgomery County, TN.  The county as a whole appears to be a high population county that should have high quality county resources.  With a population of 172,331 the county itself is the 7th most populous in the state.  It should be one of the best funded and most efficient counties in the state, but the reality is that it is in fact a rural county in terms of its ability to deliver public services.  This is because the county's sole municipality, Clarksville, absorbs most of the tax base and population.  With a city population of 132,957 this leaves an unincorporated county population of 39,374.  Thus, the county itself is semi-rural thus weak in its ability to provide public services.  Many might say that the city and county should simply combine departments or consolidate, but is this a reasonable outcome?  Shared service agreements do not always work, and the reality is that both that the county and city would work better together on at least some services.  Cities are always smaller than counties by land area and usually by population.  At the very least, the city and county should combine traffic control even if they otherwise remain separate, and partnering with any bordering county for this purpose should be considered as well.  The initial agreement between the city and county could lead to further agreements if pursued systematically while keeping the agencies otherwise separate.

County road maintenance should not always end at the city limit sign, especially if the road is an arterial or collector.  Haynes Bridge Road in Fulton County, GA is a minor arterial, but was removed from Fulton County's road system in 2007 due to the incorporation of Johns Creek (in the opposite direction behind this image).  In steps 1-3 to create a regional road system, both the stretch through Alpharetta seen here and in Johns Creek in the opposite direction would return to the control of the county while adjoining local streets would remain under control of the individual cities (Image from Google Street View).

The Montgomery County example plays out all across the state.  Consider the chart below showing five metropolitan counties in Tennessee aside from Montgomery.  Of these five examples, a tremendous amount of the county tax base is depleted by the cities and towns with exception to Knox County.  Other examples could have been used, but they included cities crossing county lines meaning no information was available as to the population of all municipalities within only one county.  Nashville/Davidson County was also not included in this case study because the road system (and government) is already consolidated.

In this chart, five of Tennessee's highest population counties are shown with their incorporated populations compared to unincorporated.  While all counties have some depletion of tax base due to cities within, several cases are extreme especially in Shelby, Rutherford and Williamson Counties.  It is unfortunately that the most urbanized counties that lose population and funding to cities and towns.  At present, no regional services are offered meaning that the counties pretty much take care of what hasn't been annexed into a city greatly limiting their ability to provide high quality, low cost county services.

This issue was highlighted in a prior post about Fulton County, GA.  In all the counties listed, these counties should at the very least begin sharing traffic control responsibility since the cities themselves are better organized for that purpose and both sides could see significant cost savings by sharing with each other.  County standards would improve, organization would improve, and city costs would decrease.  

It is stated above that the county needs to be "high population".  This means that instead of applying this statewide right away, it needs to begin as a pilot project with at least three entities contracted together in an area where combining the population would truly produce higher service levels.  Rutherford County is a great example with Murphreesboro, Smyrna and LaVergne combined having 181,317 residents or 69% of the county population.  What does this leave the county?  Not enough, for sure.  If all three cities combined with the county for traffic control, all would be in a much better position to provide this service while each would otherwise retain their separate identities and street departments.

With nearly 300,000 residents: Rutherford is a perfect example of the initial approach.  Preferably, any counties and municipalities who test this strategy should have a combined population of 250,000 residents but preferably 500,000 or more residents where a significant portion of the county is under municipal control and the county stands to gain substantial technical and financial resources by sharing that service.  If a low population county is used, it will be more difficult to determine if this approach is effective because the resources will still be too low, technical expertise will still not be available and cost savings will not necessarily result in higher standards since it will still not be an engineer-driven approach.  Consider an example involving a county with 25,000 taking over maintenance of major streets in a city with 1,500 people.  The net outcome will be negligible although the frequency of maintenance might improve slightly.  With the pilot county, the consolidation of services in this fashion will need to be analyzed for potential expansion statewide based on cost analysis and quality of service delivery, and this will be most effective when used with a large population county that already has a high tax base and better economies of scale.


Rutherford County in the example above is part of Greater Nashville.  The county alone will likely have its needs adequately met with the contract with the three cities, but why not take things further?  Other counties stand to benefit as well that are located in the MPO.  The next logical partner is neighboring Williamson County.  With a population in the unincorporated county of 100,000, the county would likely appreciate a cost-sharing program with Rutherford County to provide traffic control.  Williamson would then likely bring in the cities in its county with the program potentially having a combined population of over 500,000 making it an ideal program to expand into a true regional system.  They could also contract with Cannon County, a county with much lower population.  The combined entity could possibly waive, at least in the first year, an operations fee due to low population while providing traffic control services based on what Cannon County is able to contribute.

Note that each member contributes based on population ratios.  This means that if the combined population is 500,000 and Cannon County has only 14,000 residents, their operations fee ratio would be 2.8%.  This is not high for the more populous agencies in the cooperative, but this might be steep for Cannon County.  If the operations costs for the combined agencies are $500,000, then Cannon County would have to pay in $14,000: likely a lot more than they typically budget for traffic control in a given year.  This is why a traffic control-only agreement would need to cover a far larger number of jurisdictions or the services rendered might need to be expanded into a full service agreement to normalize such costs.


In the example above, let us assume that the entire Nashville MPO aside from Nashville-Davidson and one other county joins a traffic control cooperative.  As part of the agreement, counties and cities with under 25,000 residents are exempted from operations fees putting that cost on the larger counties and cities.  This means that instead of a bunch of cities and counties duplicating this service to widely varying results, one agency is doing it and doing it well, but the agreement is still not ideal.  Nonetheless, the results are so successful that the member counties and cities decide to take things a step further and combine road departments under the cooperative in those counties that do not pay operations fees.  The more rural counties in the region (six in total, including Cannon), push this approach as it is more beneficial to them to have their entire road maintenance operation folded into the regional system than just to provide traffic control.  Inversely, many cities in the region do not wish to have their entire street departments folded into the cooperative feeling they can do a better job.  Here is what ultimately was the outcome of this pretend scenario:

  • Nashville/Davidson remained out (did not join the regional road district)
  • Five other cities retain only the traffic control agreement (all were higher population)
  • Three other cities agree only to have certain higher classification streets owned/maintained by the region (keeping the traffic control agreement)
  • All counties (including consolidated Trousdale) and three cities combined their entire road departments into the region.

While a "farm-to-market" approach was allowed in those three cities, the prevailing option chosen was to create a regional road system that included centralization of all road maintenance to the MPO level without Nashville.  In all, 13 counties combined under this system.  The new agency was named the Greater Nashville Department of Transportation.


In this fictional scenario, counties outside of the Nashville region became interested in this new program.  A few were interested in participating as well, but they were too far away to join.  Others asked to join even though they were not part of the MPO.  One of these was Montgomery County, who ultimately felt they were better served as part of the Greater Nashville Department of Transporation (the name of the fictional regional agency) than combined with Clarksville, who was otherwise uninterested in joining.  Within two years, 25 counties were joined (1/4 of the state), and others were interested in joining as well.  Seeing that this was a successful strategy, the Nashville MPO proposed the creation of the Tennessee Local Roads Commission to study the creation of a cooperative for all counties across the state to join since the state otherwise lacks regional planning commissions.  With 35 more counties and 43 cities interested, the legislature took notice and began to question the legality of this operation and met with the MPO to discuss how to handle this.  Initially skeptical and ready to strike down this new regional agreement, the MPO worked hard to convince them that roads were better and that cost savings were significant.  The legislature was unhappy that they were not consulted in this plan and that TDOT was left out of this concept even though several counties had asked the state for years to take over their roads to no avail.


After two years of talks with legislators, an agreement was made with the MPO to start the Tennessee Local Roads Commission.  The state agreed to the rules already created for the Greater Nashville Department of Transportation for fund-sharing (population ratios), and they codified into law that any county or municipality can enter a contract for road maintenance with a regional cooperative.  However, some things were changed due to the reluctance of the regions to permit programs that weakened local control.  What was ultimately decided was:

  • The farm-to-market strategy was shot down
  • Only cities were permitted to enter agreements exclusively for traffic control while counties who were members had to transfer the entire road maintenance operation over (luckily all counties had already done so)
  • To preserve a separation of powers, the legislature also forbade the combined entity from taking over any road maintenance from TDOT.  This was due to TDOT concerns about layoffs.  
  • No new cities or counties could join without further legislative review and approval
  • Regions were only permitted to provide road maintenance and were not permitted to finance major construction

The MPO was somewhat disappointed, but they were relieved that the bulk of the program was being preserved.  However, the positive change was that the legislature changed the state funding ratios giving an additional 1% to each region to help fund operational costs allowing member agencies to not have to share costs for engineering and operations.  This helped to drive up interest in rural counties of joining who were initially reluctant due to operations fees.


Five years after the legislature codified the regional agreements, the Tennessee Local Roads Commission had developed four regions that matched the TDOT regions.  This means that the Greater Nashville Department of Transportation morphed into the Middle Tennessee Department of Transportation with the other four known as the Delta Regional DOT, Cumberland Highlands Regional DOT and Tennessee Valley DOT.  All four work entirely separate from TDOT serving their respective regions.  Thus, road maintenance that had previously been supervised by 94 out of 95 counties was now being managed by four regional DOT's.

When the program was fully established, all counties except Davidson had joined the system and all but about 10 cities, including Nashville (as part of Davidson), had traffic control agreements with the region.  TDOT continued to maintain their own roads, but by this point had ended all maintenance agreements with cities due to their joining the regional DOT's instead.  By this point, TDOT was beginning to reconsider their role in transportation due to the fact that pretty much every county was able to maintain its own roads at levels at or above state levels due to supervision by the regional DOT's when that was not possible before.


TDOT began to see their need for a larger state road system diminished, and a proposal was put in front of the legislature to terminate the restriction on local farm-to-market roads in turn for greater state-aid to regional DOT's and a transfer of all responsibility for the secondary state roads to the regions.  TDOT traditionally had always had a small role in maintenance until the road system was expanded in 1983, and with only 15% of the roads under state control, the state decided to drop that responsibility to 10%.  Thus, the legislature agreed to the changes and the following occurred:

  1. Ownership and maintenance of all secondary state routes was transferred to the regions along with a greater share of state-aid funding
    • Regions had to continue maintaining the triangle route signs, but they added the regional code onto each sign at the base of the triangle (R1-R4).  
    • The secondary routes, renamed regional routes was expanded to include an additional 5% of the road system thus the combined state/regional total was 10%
  2. The policy was changed on TDOT contracting with the regions for road maintenance.
    • Three regions ultimately chose to remain separate, but the Tennessee Valley DOT decided it was in their best interest to take over maintenance of all state routes in the region.
    • TDOT thus made per-mile transfer payments to the Tennessee Valley DOT region and transferred all materials, equipment and employees

Some other issues need to be addressed in regards to creating regional roads as regional roads will not be the same as state highways: not only will they define a smaller region, but their powers will be limited.

  1. Control: most roads maintained by the regional cooperative/regional DOT will not actually be owned by them.
    1. Concessions have to be made to meet local needs such as full cooperation when city plans differ from regional standards.
    2. Urban areas may seek to have completely different standards on certain roads and streets, thus the need to allow certain jurisdictions to contract only certain roads and streets.
      • This is especially true in cities where maintenance gaps may be needed through historic districts, downtown areas and special corridors
      • An instance like this can be found in Reidsville, NC where Scales St. is a state-maintained secondary road on each side of downtown but is city-maintained through the downtown area.  
  2. Traffic Laws: speed limits and traffic control ordinances must respect local needs
    1. Regional cooperatives should be forbidden from setting speed limits on any roads they do not actually own
      • The regional cooperative may recommend or study a speed limit, but if they do not actually have ownership of the road they may not set that speed limit
    2. Local ordinances and restrictions are set by the local agency, not the regional cooperative
  3. Overlaying jurisdiction: regional roads functioning as secondary state routes
    1. If regional responsibility is not comprehensive, then regional roads should function as highways
    2. This means that the road maintenance responsibility continues under regional supervision when entering a city, town or another county similar to state routes if roadway is of regional importance.
    3. Overlaying jurisdiction is not necessary on roadways that are not of regional importance, but at the very least traffic control and route designations, if used, should begin and end at logical endpoints for proper route continuity and information.

In Wisconsin, all counties maintain state routes as well as their own county roads.  In addition, county roads pass through incorporated towns.  This approach helps to better fund counties and unify road standards.  Most counties follow state standards (Image from Google Street View).


The design for regional systems is based primarily on regional planning districts, but the design of these districts is not always uniform.  The base concept for starting a regional roads program begins with metropolitan statistical areas and counties that lay just outside of the area.  In fact, the creation of regional services on a single county level or shared among municipalities/townships within a county is seen as a first large step in the process.  

If a more scientific approach is used to select regional pilot projects, two regions will be selected: a high population region and a medium population region.  In these, only counties within a single MSA will be combined for road maintenance, and cities within those counties will be required to participate.  For the pilot project, two areas will be chosen.  In the first, the initial high population county will be required to combine with a neighboring high population county who also developed their own regional county highway system to join their two county-wide regional systems together.  Only county highways will be included with functionally local county roads excluded from the system.  Office space will be leased for up to a year in a central location and a portion of the employees from the two agencies will be combined to control the two road systems together as a single unit.  The population of the two counties combined must exceed 1,000,000 residents.

This map shows Texas MSA's.  Regional road systems should evolve around these MSA's and if necessary combined when an MSA population is too low.

The other pilot region will include a medium-sized city and will do the same, but will combine all road maintenance.  Whether or not a regional highway system was developed is negligible in the second pilot project.  In this region, the combined population of the pilot operation should be no less than 100,000 residents but no more than 300,000 residents.  In this pilot region, only one county should have a population exceeding 100,000 residents with preferably all other counties within the region below 50,000 residents.  The pilot project should also not include a consolidated city-county.  The region will in this case operate from the highest population county thus combining forces with the lower population counties.  In this strategy, the highest population county will assume control of all county roads in the lower population counties with all employees retained in every county.  Supervision in the outlying counties will be handled by the county engineering department in the highest population county, and traffic control functions will be consolidated into the highest population county.  

The goal of the two pilot projects is to test metropolitan road districts and rural regional road districts.  The pilots will find out whether a superregional road maintenance pact can work (developing regional highways separate from county roads and municipal streets in high population counties) and whether a rural regional district can work (all county road maintenance in multiple counties combined into a single region) based on the initial concept.  If both projects are successful, this would lead to the rollout of a statewide program for regional road districts.  In both regions tested, the regions would also be expanded per boundaries drawn statewide covering all counties across the state.  The failure of the projects would not necessarily mean the termination of the project, but it would mean that further study and testing of each strategy would be needed to create a situation where overall costs are reduced, organization is improved, economies of scale improved and thresholds established for continued local control on other roads and streets.  In a worse case scenario, another region would have to be selected for testing.

Examples of potential pilot projects and the regional planning commissions they fall in are as follows:

  1. Cameron and Hidalgo Counties, TX
  2. Cobb and Cherokee Counties, GA
  3. Jefferson and Shelby Counties, AL
Regional (Small City):
  1. Wichita Falls, TX (Wichita, Archer and Clay Counties)
  2. Savannah, GA (Chatham, Bryan and Effingham Counties)
  3. Clarksville, TN (Montgomery and Stewart Counties)


Many ideas have been presented over the years to cut costs and improve the quality of roads under local control.  All have had limited success, but none have been broadly adopted.  The regional model may be a tough sell much as the North Carolina plan was in the 1930's (it was ultimately adopted in only six states, fully adopted in only three, and abandoned in two).  The regional plan is viewed as a revolutionary approach that makes a bold statement that not only are the local agencies too small, but also that the state is too big.  Would the taxpayers rather have the costs of certain state roads in a state with 10 million residents dumped on a poor rural county with 20,000 residents or on multiple regions with 500,000+ residents?  Shouldn't large metropolitan areas also have some autonomy from the state government in terms of road funding, responsibility, construction and maintenance?  These questions cannot be answered without an alternative to the prevailing model used today.

It is obviously possible that the steps presented here can be skipped for a top-down mandate to form regions as quickly as possible, but the plan presented is a radical departure from the local control model used in most states today, and a slower evolution will give time to prove to skeptical state and local agencies that it can actually work while allowing the regions to bring in talent to make sure desired results are achieved.  While some regional pacts exist, and state road maintenance of local roads can be also viewed as a regional model, it is not the same as this plan.  

The traditional nuclear model of counties and cities running their own individual road systems without any outside interference is replaced with a family of local governments combining horizontally while the centralized state control model is downsized to a more local approach.  The new agencies also do not form a new government instead functioning jointly as special districts that are both subdivisions of state government and collectives of local government.  Such a new approach may take time to evolve, but if given a chance will one day be viewed as the ideal means of operating a highway system and preferred over other methods.

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