More needs to be done with less. In this image, the bridge approach lacks any warning signage (object markers), and the guardrails are both outdated and dangerous. Perhaps if the counties were boosted with state-aid funds and better oversight of safety improvements, this could become far less common on both county and state roads.
A MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL EXCHANGE: HOW IT WORKS
This plan involves four primary steps:
- Consolidate road maintenance with counties, putting counties in charge of non-technical routine maintenance on all state routes, including within cities.
- Pay per-mile payments to the counties for this purpose, but keep back a retainer of around 25% of those payments to be used by the state on county-maintained roads for state-supervised local traffic control and safety improvements
- Place all county roads and major city streets under supervision of GDOT traffic operations for the purpose of planning and overseeing traffic control with the state providing direct funding and/or furnishing materials for traffic signs and pavement markings on federal-aid eligible and non-federal aid minor collector roads.
- Decentralize GDOT's traffic operations division into 7-12 separate units. These units could also become a separate agency from GDOT, if needed.
Consolidating Road Maintenance: Greater Reliance On the Counties
Most counties in Georgia have what they need to maintain roads if that work does not involve a traffic engineer. They are typically very good about paving roads, repairing bridges, patching potholes, and keeping the weeds down in the summertime. While some do rely on contractors themselves, this would be less necessary if more resources were available to them. Still, a lot is expected of counties with little return when state-aid is only 20% of state funding. Inversely, with 80% of the funding, GDOT does not have enough road responsibility. Why is the state not tapping a valuable resource when counties are all duplicating services with the state? While most counties are not structured to provide technical expertise to the state's road system, they can certainly do many other activities on behalf of the state such as pothole patching, mowing/brush cutting, winter maintenance, and a host of other road repairs as long as those decisions do not involve engineering judgment. However, since most counties lack an engineer, and those that do have too many other responsibilities, it is not best for counties to be providing full road maintenance services: not on state contracted roads nor their own roads. However, what the state isn't able to do the counties can. Guardrail repairs? The state calls up the county to fix a guardrail. Striping crew? The state can loan equipment on a per diem basis to each county unless the county can afford to have their own in-house. Signs or signals are down? The county can get to them faster than the state can, although in this case some coordination with the state is needed. This also removes the complication of determining the responsible party where a state and local road intersect.
The state is paying too much for striping while local governments are still struggling to get striping on farm-to-market roads like this one.
Even if every county in the state was not participating, those counties with higher populations are certainly suited to take over these duties from the state. Cobb, Gwinnett, Bibb, Richmond, Chatham, and Muscogee are all large enough that their public works departments could probably independently handle state road maintenance even if the state provided no oversight or assistance. However, most will not be able to participate in such a program without the state taking a larger technical role.
Counties like Cobb are better capitalized to take over road maintenance from GDOT with little state assistance, but this is not so much the case in other counties with smaller tax bases like Walker below that need a more direct approach to technical matters. However, both would benefit equally.
Consolidating road maintenance in this way also has an added benefit of restoring county crews in Metro Atlanta counties where the county road department was reduced or abolished to divide the counties into cities. Perhaps if counties like Fulton were contracted to maintain state roads, they could also form agreements with certain cities to provide routine maintenance services on certain roads or in certain lower population cities such as Chattahoochee Hills. Otherwise, the cities could provide these same services on behalf of the counties in these places, although cities should have to have a population of at least 40,000 or more before they should be permitted to contract maintenance of state routes on behalf of the county. Very small cities are not equipped for that purpose: especially if there are freeways or interstates running through the city.
Per-Mile Payments to Counties
Counties would see a huge boost in available resources if they were paid per-mile to maintain state-owned roads passing through their borders. This would pay for them to do far more with less. GDOT would simply expand the per-mile payments they already provide to the cities to all of the counties and transfer existing state employees to work for the county government with previous agreements on wages/benefits retained, but attrition put into place so that future employees work for the county government. Ultimately, all roads across the state would be maintained by the local government.
Obviously some equipment will need to be shared among the smaller, less populated counties. This should be kept in the district barns and used on loan per diem for each county if needed, but larger counties should provide these services in-house.
However, traffic control and safety improvements have proven to be a weak point for many counties across the state as they have relied entirely on state-aid or federal-aid for any significant repairs to inadequate or aging traffic control devices while they have nobody in-house with the training necessarily to properly inspect traffic control duties. When guardrails go decades without repair and signs do not get properly engineered, it demonstrates that a larger agency needs to be overseeing this work. This leads to the next point:
GDOT Supervision of Local Traffic Control and Safety Improvements
While most roadway functions would be consolidated to the county level, one exception is needed. This involves the retainer of a portion of state-aid payments enough to pay for an expanded GDOT traffic operations unit or regional traffic operations division. It should also be enough for the state to pool resources sufficiently to at least partially furnish traffic control devices and safety improvements to the counties above what is available in off-system safety grants. Many devices are too costly not to be purchased in bulk, and this is needed to improve availability and purchasing power that the local governments lack. This means that out of whatever per-mile payments are decided that 10-20% should be withheld and distributed directly to traffic operations to work on behalf of the counties. If the roadway falls within a city and the payment otherwise goes to the city, this withholding should also come from the city as well so that the state can provide that same service to each city.
Let us drill it down here. Let's say that the state payment is approximately $8,800 per mile or $192 million (this is how much the state spent per mile per the GDOT fact book). This constitutes 19% of the state's budget. Of this, the state retains 25% or $2,200 so the final payment is $6,600 per mile. This gives the state a budget of $39.6 million dedicated just for traffic control and safety improvements to be used on both state and major local roads (the state currently spends $26,000,000 on state routes). If operations costs of 30% are deducted to finance traffic operations, each county would receive on average $174,339 a year to use on both state and locally-owned collectors and arterials. It is an increase in budget, but it is offset by the consolidation of road maintenance between the state and counties. This means that, on average, each county receives $88,050 per year for signs, signals, pavement markings, and guardrails when most rural counties are only able to budget for much less. In addition, the joint purchasing will make those dollars stretch much further, and with payments based on road mileage it will mean that rural counties will be able to budget for roadways they were previously unable to afford while urban counties can supplement existing budgets.
Let us look at Fannin County in this example:
- Fannin County has 64.96 miles of state routes (2012 statistics)
- Thus, Fannin County would receive a payment of $428,736 to maintain state routes
- The traffic control retainer is $142,912
- 30% overhead costs take out $42,874
- This leaves $100,038 for traffic control and safety improvements with $37,824 for state routes and $62,214 for county-maintained collectors and arterials, all which could be jointly purchased.
Let us next look at Cherokee County:
- Cherokee County has 133.27 miles of state routes (2012 statistics)
- Thus, Cherokee County would receive a payment of $1,172,776 to maintain state routes
- The traffic control retainer is $293,194
- 30% overhead costs take out $87,958
- This leaves $205,236 for traffic control and safety improvements with $87,513 for state routes and $117,723 for county-maintained collectors and arterials, all of which could be jointly purchased
- The county also maintains its own sign shop, which could afford upgrades under this approach
The expansion of traffic control would be two-fold: oversight would be for all county-maintained roads, but state funding would not be sufficient to cover all roads. The traffic operations office would simply oversee and direct the placement and design of traffic control devices based on whatever funds are available, but they would not be permitted to set any traffic laws or ordinances since they are not the legal owners of county-maintained roads. This means that they cannot determine the appropriate speed limit, post truck restrictions, or post any traffic laws unless specifically permitted to do so. Likewise, if a local agency creates or alters a traffic law, this must be posted by the traffic control division.
What the state would provide in terms of funding would be equivalent to a farm-to-market system. In order for a roadway to receive state payments or funding, the roadway must be a designated arterial or collector and not be part of the state highway system. This means that the state would fund this work on only about 30% of the state's roads leaving local governments the primary responsibility to fund traffic control devices and safety improvements on all remaining local roads. GDOT or a regional traffic operations unit would simply oversee all work that was done to make sure that it complies with applicable federal standards, and counties would have more flexibility on materials as long as they complied with federal standards.
It is not an accident that state-aid payments should focus on these farm-to-market level roads. If GDOT's resources are spread too thin on inconsequential roads, it is less likely that the county roads that are equivalent in functional classification to state routes will receive adequate signage, pavement markings, and maintenance. A significant need for better guide signs is an example of such as well as a need to focus pavement markings on the most widely traveled roads. If the state can focus resources on these roads, they will be overall better maintained than they would be if treated as just "local" roads. In addition, this limited role will help address the issue of counties like Fulton where city governments maintain every non-state road at present. If Fulton were to be restored to the road maintenance business, it would make sense to have those state payments help cover county maintenance on the more widely traveled city streets.
A need for significantly better signage, especially guide, is needed on both state and local roads. This has simply not been addressed through the current system where this responsibility is duplicated between the state and county and too centralized on a state level. This guide sign was added into this scene along Old U.S. 278/Atlanta Hwy in Polk County near Rockmart where it junctions with Vinson Mountain Road. GDOT still recognizes this portion of Old U.S. 278 as a minor arterial, but it not maintained to anything near state highway standards. Vinson Mountain Road is a major collector road that was once considered for a state route upgrade.
Of special note is that some instances exist where a collector/arterial falls on an unpaved road, substandard road, or closed road. In those cases, the county should be permitted to swap mileage on a case-by-case basis with an equivalent local road that is deemed important enough by GDOT. These roads are indicated in grey or white on the state's functional classification map such as Newport Road in Fannin County or Old U.S. 441 in Rabun County through Lakemont. Both counties have unpaved or substandard collector roads that could be swapped.
Since counties would be in charge of maintaining state routes, they will need the equipment to do this. While the state might provide funding and oversight for traffic control, it will be up to the counties to do the work for them. This means that counties will need to work under state supervision for state roads, accept work orders from the state when state funding is provided for local roads, and all traffic control proposals for local roads, especially those using state funding, will need to be approved by the traffic operations office before signage is installed. Counties (and any participating cities) will need to purchase only from state-approved vendors, and in-house work will be subject to inspection from traffic operations: especially if it is state-funded. In fact, it would be best for this process to be decentralized as a means of reducing the dependence on prison labor for sign production and to assure improved uniformity. This will be the condition that counties will have to follow in order to be eligible for state-aid payments so that they have greater responsibilities. While counties are not technically required to follow these standards due to home rule laws, a failure to meet these duties will necessarily result in the state cutting payments to the counties or suspending state-aid road projects until required corrections are made and/or conditions met. Since the counties will have the resources and funding to do this work correctly, they will no longer have an excuse.
Decentralization of GDOT Traffic Operations
If GDOT is to take on a lot more roads for traffic control purposes, the last thing that is needed is for this duty to be operated out of Atlanta and not distributed to areas closer to the roads themselves. For that reason, traffic operations should be fully decentralized one of three ways:
- To Each GDOT District
- This places traffic control duties within Districts 1-7 with a separate office in each district operating independent of each other.
- Doing this allows a more creative and independent approach to traffic control that suits the needs of each region.
- This places traffic operations duties into 12 districts based on the boundaries of the present-day regional planning districts similar to how GDOT has separate construction districts that do not line up with the current GDOT districts.
- This gets GDOT out of the traffic control business and instead assigns this duty to 12 completely independent districts based on regional planning districts funded by state-aid funds
- These traffic operations districts would be headed by a PTOE and staff that would oversee traffic control duties on state and local roads only within that assigned region, and they would be required to follow state standards along state highways while developing their own standards on local roads they supervise.
This map was used on the post about regional roads, but it is a good rule of thumb on how GDOT's own districts should be carved up even if just for the purpose of traffic control. What Catoosa County needs may be far different from what Glynn County needs, but on a very local level it is not working well while the state responsibility is spread very thin over such a large state with over 10 million residents.
It is important to note on the former option that GDOT actually does need to create more districts. The current seven districts are too few to accommodate the state's population and have not changed in many years. At least two new districts are needed: one that is formed out of District 1 and 6 and the other out of District 2 and 3. Preferably the entire district operation needs to be reformed so that the new districts line up perfectly with the state's regional planning districts. This will better allow GDOT to coordinate with local governments on matter such as transportation planning and maintenance.
WHY THIS IS BETTER
The solution here is laid out in four simple steps: the state contracts with the counties for road maintenance, pays the counties per-mile to do state-aid work, retains a portion of funding to pool resources and provide oversight of local traffic control, and then the state decentralizes traffic operations in order to provide a more locally-intensive approach without destroying the benefits of consolidation.
By playing on each other's strengths and allowing the maintenance gap between state and county routes to be significantly narrowed, perhaps then the state can focus more on realigning the state route system to better line up with function and need. A large reason that so many politically-motivated useless state routes remain when far more important roads remain local is that there is an unspoken consensus the counties won't do as good of a job, but in this way this differences would become negligible. If functional routes could be signed and maintained as well as a state route, it would improve navigation and allow local governments to be less concerned about the potential consequences of a mileage transfer. They will primarily be in charge of maintenance anyway, and the state will be overseeing traffic control either way, so what is now both a funding and maintenance issue simply turns into a funding issue.
This is a win-win for both sides: GDOT saves money and relies less on contractors to maintain state roads while the local governments receive a huge boost in funding just to maintain a few more roads while gaining access to proper engineering oversight on thousands of miles of local roads, many previously not supervised by any engineer. Taxes do not have to be raised, and more is able to be done with less without making any changes to state or local government. The question is, will GDOT or the state legislature be open to such an idea? Past experience says no, but perhaps cooler heads will prevail when the solution in many ways preserves status quo while having both state and local agencies play to each other's strengths.