Gas tax increase should lead to restructuring of Georgia’s State Highway System

By James Legg of Coalition for Better Roadway Standards

The Georgia Legislature’s latest move to massively raise state gasoline taxes creates an opportunity that was previously unavailable to residents of the state: a far more efficient and well-maintained highway system.  With Georgia’s state clocking in at 159 counties, population topping 10,000,000 and road mileage over 125,000 miles the local burden is higher than ever.  Local governments in this state have previously had no alternatives to reduce their burdens, and state-aid was never adequate to truly bring all local roads up to acceptable maintenance standards.  A window of opportunity has opened, and it is hoped this leads to winds of change blowing through to correct a 50 year mistake.

Statewide, the quality of county roads and city streets statewide is very inconsistent.  In fact, local roads by their very nature are a very regressive means of maintaining roads.  Typically a road maintained by a local government is maintained well only in areas with higher populations by local agencies that put a strong emphasis on high standards guided by knowledgeable local officials and well-trained staff.  This is difficult to achieve when every aspect of local roads is political in nature.  The only other exceptions happen when the state is either heavily subsidizing or maintaining roads in rural areas.  Even in high population areas, local roads are often not well maintained when local funding priorities leave roads under local control short of funds.  Sometimes these local governments just do not care about doing a good job even if funding is otherwise available.  The state as it currently stands places far too much responsibility with local government with far too little funds, accountability or technical assistance to provide those services.  This is why the state should begin to consider three main options for local governments that are currently unavailable.  These include an expansion of the state highway system, state maintenance agreements for local roads and/or an expansion of traffic operations coupled with expanded state funding for safety programs on a local level.

STATE HIGHWAY SYSTEM EXPANSION

The most beneficial program with guaranteed results statewide would be an expansion of the state highway system.  At present, the state highway system has had a mileage cap that has lasted for 50 years.   This 18,000 mile cap was established in 1963 as a means to reign in political excesses during a period of rapid state highway system growth.  While that goal was achieved, the cap was never raised nor set to rise proportionally with the overall increase of roadway miles.  By 1972 the cap was reached with approximately 20% of the road system under state control.  Since that time state responsibility has dropped from over 19% in 1975 to 14% today while the local responsibility for roads increased nearly 20%.  This information was sourced from GDOT documents that were calculated to show this drop.  This means that counties and cities have taken over 25,000 miles of additional roads while state responsibility has never increased.  Meanwhile, Georgia has given local governments an unfunded mandate allowing the state carte blanche to build more and more roads that they never have to maintain.

The reality is that local government in Georgia is far too fragmented to adequately manage construction and maintenance of roads at the levels they do presently.  With 159 counties, the highest number outside of Texas, and 536 cities (a sizable percentage that have less than 500 residents), local government is not the best steward of a state road system as small as Georgia has.  Even Texas has a larger state maintained ratio with around 25% of their roads under state control.  The gas tax increase that is proposed should offer something positive to Georgia taxpayers aside from vague promises of road projects and road maintenance.  Georgia has built roads like crazy while leaving counties to foot the bill for the older and more worn out roads that they did not want anymore.  These roads are aging now having been built 50-60 years ago and need a more direct approach than the decentralized approach that is used today.  To put it bluntly, the state needs to not only take over far more roads but also better manage funding and maintenance on the remaining local roads.  They could have done this before considering that they have enjoyed far more funding than much larger state controlled road systems in states like Virginia and South Carolina that have been notoriously underfunded.  They can certainly do it now with the billion dollar tax increase that is likely to pass.

It should also be noted that the state highway system in Georgia does not have an even distribution.  Because of the mileage cap, state system expansion 50 years ago left some counties politically favored back then with far more roads on the state system than others meaning that these counties have far higher ratio of state maintained roads than counties of similar population.  A few rural counties in the state have as much as 25% of their roads under state control such as Franklin, White, Treutlen and Charlton while other rural counties like Fannin, Bacon and Pierce have less than 10% of their roads under state control.  While other rural counties are not proportionally as mileage poor as Fannin, they are still struggling to pave and maintain roads.  Bulloch in particular has the highest number of dirt roads in the state despite a growing population and is struggling to pave its roads with less than 12% of their road network under state control.  These counties with the lowest state ratios also have incomplete road networks due to the inability of these local governments to finance the completion of paving projects at the speed the state was providing.

Urban counties are also being shafted for road mileage such as Cobb who despite having 10% of their lane miles under state control only has 4.8% of their roads state maintained.  This means that counties like Cobb are highly dependent on local taxes to fund an excessively bloated county road system with little to no state help.  Chatham and Gwinnett have also used local sales taxes to build freeways that the state refused to fund with the state also refusing to take them over without demanding a mileage swap.  All three urbanized counties have state ratios that are well below state average and have a state highway system that is not based on need due to counties wanting to lose mileage.

While Cobb, Gwinnett and Chatham’s resources are obviously better than these other rural counties, the mileage cap has clearly pitted counties against each other for a few precious state maintained road miles with county leaders biting their nails to get sales tax initiatives passed to make up the difference.  Should Chatham and Gwinnett taxpayers remain on the hook for interstate-grade roads like Sugarloaf Parkway, Harry Truman Parkway and Veterans Parkway?  Thus, this strict limit that GDOT has placed on state road miles has made the process of getting badly needed roads placed on the state route system an extremely difficult and far too political process which often punishes counties that must succumb to horse trading just to get the state to cover maintenance of a more expensive to maintain road.

If someone told you you’d be paying a huge tax increase for roads, which would you rather have?  A visible improvement due to a large number of local highways turned to the state for far better maintenance or more money thrown at both pet projects and local governments to maintain a steadily increasing number of roads when 75% of the counties are so poor they can’t even afford a county engineer?  A small, rural county maintaining both a 20 mile long connecting highway and a 1/2 mile long street on a shoestring budget is not an efficient use of resources: especially when you have 55% of the counties in the state not even having a population of 25,000 residents.

If you took less than half of that $1 billion and applied it towards an expansion of the state highway system and used the rest of that half billion for local-aid programs, the state could easily relieve counties and cities of maintenance on an additional 25,000-35,000 miles of roadways for a state highway system totaling between 40,000 and 50,000 miles.  This addition would change the state maintained ratio from the current 14% to between 32 and 40% of the state highway system: a rate shared by several other states.  At a rate of $12,000 per mile, it would take $300 million to $420 million for the state to take over enough roads so that local governments are no longer worried about building and maintaining big highways carrying through traffic.  At minimum, the state should take over 7,000 miles of roads subsequently setting a ratio cap at 20% thus allowing counties to bring their federal-aid road network more in line with available local funding.  Federal-aid routes in Georgia constitute 24% of the road network with 10% of that ratio under local control.

If the state takes over additional routes, these additional state maintained roads should be defined as “secondary state” with secondary routes designed with a ratio cap that allows secondary responsibility to grow proportional to the local road system growth.  Primary state routes should also have their mileage cap replaced with a ratio as a means to let both systems grow at the same rate.  This means that state responsibility would be set to ratios of 14% for primary routes and between 18% and 26% for secondary.  Keep in mind that this is also close to the ratio that South Carolina is proposing for their state route system which at present has 63% of their roads under state control, so this is a modest proposal.  The division of primary and secondary allows the state to fund these new state routes at a lower rate per mile than primary state routes since they are typically less traveled, have fewer lanes and cost less to maintain.

Along with this huge funding increase, GDOT could then use what was left to aid counties at close to the same levels that they currently do today.  If half of the proposed tax increase was used, that would include between $80 million and $200 million that could be applied in local aid.  Local agencies at present receive around $111 million except that funding must be spread across 86% of the road network.  $80 million spread across 60% or $200 million spread across 68% of the road system seems like a fair deal.  That funding could also help fund the second measure: state maintenance of local roads and streets.

STATE MAINTENANCE ON LOCALLY-OWNED ROADS AND STREETS

In 1985, Georgia discontinued its program permitting local governments to dissolve their own street departments and use state forces for maintenance.  While short-lived, a few counties and cities in the state were given the opportunity to voluntarily use state forces to maintain local roads and streets.  Called “captive counties” in other states, this option has been all but eliminated in all but four states largely due to declines in state level funding.  Counties such as Liberty and cities such as Adairsville took advantage of this program in the short time it existed.  The cancellation of this program led to a marked decline in the quality of these roads even if pavement conditions otherwise improved.  Funding that was available was shifted only to local paving projects in the now defunct Local Assistance Road Program (LARP).  LMIG today expands state-aid beyond just asphalt, but it is not a substitute for local agencies being permitted to use state forces for local maintenance.

If this funding increase passes, this program should be brought back.  In this program, roads do not become state-owned and financial responsibility remains local.  The local agency and state simply agree on an amount needed to maintain local roadways.  Generally this plan should involve two tiers.  In counties under 50,000 residents and cities under 5,000 residents the local agency should be allowed to dissolve their street department either using their portion of gas or sales tax funding or general funds to finance state forces to maintain their roads.  County employees would be shifted to the state level during this process becoming state employees for the duration of the agreement.  In higher population counties and cities, road maintenance would be limited to county roadways of regional importance with the state providing partial or full maintenance on an agreed on rate per mile.   On these roads the state would not take over ownership, but would have maintenance responsibility during the duration of the agreement.  In these agreements, the state would furnish equipment, materials and provide engineering services with local forces doing the work.

CONSOLIDATING TRAFFIC OPERATIONS AND SAFETY IMPROVEMENTS ON LOCAL ROADS TO THE STATE LEVEL

What counties can make up in quantity they are not able to make up in quality.  While a county may be able to more effectively finance road construction by keeping local dollars at home, they simply do not have the efficiency or resources to provide the same quality of road maintenance the state does.  It should be noted that only about 15%-20% of the counties in the state even have a county engineer, and funding used is rarely used for any significant amount of traffic operations work.  Because of this, road standards are highly variable from county to county.

Since the biggest deficiency with local roadways involves safety improvements, this is something that should be consolidated to a state level.  The state’s traffic operations division should simply be expanded to plan and authorize the installation and maintenance of all traffic control devices on preferably every road in the state, but especially arterial roads, collector roads and rural county roads.  This expansion should require an increase of at least 0.25%-0.5% of the budget or $5 million to $10 million per year.

In addition, the state should also expand funding for safety improvements.  Safety improvements include traffic signs (except street name signs), pavement markings, traffic signals and guardrails.  While the state currently has a program where federal funding is redirected to cover this work, this would expand funding on a state level as well with funding distributed annually to every county instead of on a case-by-case basis.  This expansion should include an additional 2% of the state DOT budget.  This means that out of a budget of $2 billion that $40 million a year would be dedicated to this program with funding distributed to locally-owned roadways based on population and road mileage.   This means that a county like Union County would receive $86,777 per year that would be spent on all county roads and streets within the city of Blairsville.  While that seems like a lot, it is far less than the state having to take over additional roadways.  Such a program should also become state law instead of state policy to assure that the next budget cut doesn’t eliminate funding and thus eliminate the program.

Federal-aid funding will certainly help this work, but it is also needed for other areas such as intersection improvements.  The federal-aid off-system program may also still be used for initial engineering work and large scale upgrades but this guaranteed funding source would cover routine maintenance.  Local agencies will be required to comply with state and MUTCD standards as a requirement for receiving funding from this program.  Either state or local forces will install and maintain traffic control devices with equipment and state field engineering supervision provided if handled by local forces.

CONCLUSION

In all, without innovative reforms like those that were proposed above, this gas tax increase is just that if it’s not going to produce real results for all Georgia residents.  Georgians deserve a more consistently maintained and better funded local road network that allows counties and cities to focus their resources on their strengths while eliminating their weaknesses.  Since most local governments in Georgia are small and cannot greatly improve their funding options without substantial state help, this means that the state needs to either maintain more roads or provide many more services for local governments.  If the money is available, the state can do a far better job at far less cost than what it would cost a local government to do the same.  While no tax increase is pleasant, this is a rare opportunity for the Georgia legislature to show state taxpayers that a badly needed increase in funding will subsequently provide Georgians a far better road system than they currently have.

By James Legg of Coalition for Better Roadway Standards.  The Coalition for Better Roadway Standards pushes for reform in engineering standards on local highway systems, researches alternatives to devolution and pushes for a greater state role in transportation.  James has spent years pushing for reform of Georgia’s state highway system.

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