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:
- 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
- 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:
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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"
- 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
- 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.
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.
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:
- 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%
- 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.
- Control: most roads maintained by the regional cooperative/regional DOT will not actually be owned by them.
- Concessions have to be made to meet local needs such as full cooperation when city plans differ from regional standards.
- 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.
- 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
- If regional responsibility is not comprehensive, then regional roads should function as highways
- 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.
- 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.
- Cameron and Hidalgo Counties, TX
- Wichita Falls, TX (Wichita, Archer and Clay Counties)
A NEW IDEA NEEDS TIME TO BE SUCCESSFUL