Friday, July 22, 2016

The Counties and Cities Need A Voice: Why Is There No Dissent On Devolution?

Hearing state legislators, urban planners and local control advocates, they would lead you to believe that everybody is on board with transferring as much authority as possible to the local governments.  Their reasons are different, but the goals are the same: they want the state out of the road business except for building roads and maintaining a few arterials.  The reasons usually are the following:

  • Reducing taxes
    • In this case, it is a political shell game that is done to make it look like that state taxes are being lowered, but the need does not go away.  It just passes the bulk of the financial responsibility onto the local government at higher cost to local taxpayers for lower standards and reduced oversight.
    • The exchange for taking the state out of the picture is higher property taxes, local-option gas taxes, higher sales taxes and higher fees
    • State payments to local governments are typically drastically reduced 
  • Home rule advocacy
    • Home rule advocates believe that no problem should ever be handled by any government larger than a city or county and that all activities should be solely controlled by whatever agency is directly in charge.  
      • They do not care about the quality of the roads thinking instead in terms of quantity (e.g. "We need to repave our roads NOW!").  
      • They care about having absolute local authority to decide everything.  
      • They are blind to the fact that local corruption exists, and authority to oversee roads is literally held by one or two people on a local level that may or may not be capable of doing an acceptable job
        • e.g. "Joey Blalock was hired in 1992 by the county and is the only person in charge of this department.  He has managed the sign shop since he graduated from high school.  He was hired by his cousin, the county commissioner, who is not retiring until this next election."
      • Checks and balances are poor when road responsibility is fragmented like that.
    • Home rule advocates refuse to consider any partnerships that allow the local government to contract road maintenance with any other agency while maintaining local autonomy.  This includes:
      • State forces (state DOT or other state agency)
      • Other local agencies on a higher or lower level (city/town/township-county)
      • Other local agencies at the same level (county-county, city-city) for road maintenance at their own expense
      • They write laws, usually at the state level, either banning the practice or making it very difficult to do
  • A Big State Backlog
    • In some states, the backlog of construction and maintenance never seems to improve and in states with large levels of state responsibility such as Pennsylvania and Virginia that is even more true.  
    • The real issue is that local financing should be introduced as a supplement to build and improve less important routes, but these types would rather transfer the entire responsibility of roads to the local governments as a condition of local financing of road projects than allow the state to continue to maintain lower-level state highways while allowing counties or municipalities to construct them
    • States unfortunately use local financing as a stepping stone to forcing the local agencies to take over the roads instead of viewing it as a partnership
    • The red tape involved to build a road spikes costs for road projects reducing the number of roads built and improved.  Many believe the local governments can do it faster and cheaper (which they are usually correct) but that it means the local government can and should do everything (which is not the issue).  However, faster and cheaper does not always mean it is done well as local road projects are often mismanaged due to lack of proper inspection and never completed as planned.
    • Most local agencies lack the qualified staff to administer road projects meaning that the local responsibility should be limited to funding except in a few cases
  • A Financial Crisis
    • In Florida, Virginia and South Carolina the proposed transfer to the local governments was generally caused by the state gas tax being too low to manage the size of the road inventory.
    • Home rule advocates seize on this opportunity to railroad a devolution effort through the legislature.
    • The public failed to understand the implications of what this involved as "home rule" is not understood in the way that "the state dumping thousands of miles on rural counties to maintain" is
  • Private Sector Pressure
    • The private sector does not like working with state government when incorporating new developments into existing roads
    • They are aware that counties and cities have few standards and less muscle against the actions of private developers who are sometimes unscrupulous in their actions by building substandard roads and improperly tying into existing public roads
    • Local governments are typically more likely to take over maintenance of a road in a new development that is not built to code than the state government
  • Corruption
    • A high profile event involving the state managing one or more road projects turns the public sour against state government.  This is used as a strategy to promote the more "ethical" approach of transferring roads to the local agencies who are more "accountable".  It is a straw man argument, but it was very effective in eliminating a brand new secondary state highway system in Georgia in the 1950's.
    • Corruption also exists on a local level, but it does not receive the same amount of press or visibility as state-level corruption
    • Many in South Carolina are using the same argument in regards to the State Infrastructure Bank as a means of correlating potential mismanagement of construction funds with a high level of state responsibility.  It is a false comparison, but it has been effective in convincing many.
  • Restricting Use
    • Some state DOT's often will refuse to maintain roads that are not open to trucks forcing the locality to succumb to taking over the road.  This is often a ploy used in states with mileage caps to turn back roads with little resistance.
    • State DOT's are also restrictive on standards, and this often clashes with local design standards meaning drawn out talks to work out differences in roadway projects, including streetscapes.  Usually if it is a downtown area or dense urban corridor, the state will transfer the road to the local government or reroute the highway instead of caving to local demands.
    • State DOT's force counties and cities to take over roads if the local agency wants the project done faster instead of just letting them complete the project and return it to the state.  This ploy was used to force Cobb County to take over GA 176.
    • Some state roads run through urban neighborhoods where local residents do not want through traffic using the streets, so the state transfers the road back to the local government instead of just making the route unsigned to discourage through traffic.
    • Having two classes of state roadways helps minimize the impact of restricting use in that roadways classified as secondary (like Virginia) or secret (like Maryland) typically are more flexible about restricting access to commercial traffic while having only one class of highways almost always demands full roadway transfer.

All of the above is further exacerbated by state DOT's who seem to almost unilaterally have an iron-fisted policy that they want to turn as many roads to the local agencies as possible as if that is some sort of solution to traffic woes.  In theory, this seems reasonable if only local governments were structurally prepared for that responsibility.  Reality has proven that the vast majority of counties and municipalities across the country are definitely not.  With states, population does not matter but with counties and cities the population and tax base very much factor in to whether a local road will be built and maintained to sound engineering standards.  While there is definitely a solid argument in reducing state involvement in road projects that are not along major routes, the purpose of a state DOT is not just to build roads.  They were created because it was confirmed that local governments really were too small to handle that responsibility structurally or financially.  Here, we have been trying to understand who is behind this push to force local governments to take on more and more roads and why this view has been so popular since the 1970's.


The sight of something like this on a local road is what happens when devolution is the rule.  It is clear on this small county road that the road department does not have an employee hired that has any idea what he/she is doing.

From the 1930's to the 1950's, the idea that the state could provide services for counties and even cities was hotly debated as it was proven that most local agencies, especially counties, were incapable of providing high quality public services nor properly planning a transportation network.  It is true that counties and cities have improved over the years as the state governments are more heavily subsidizing them than in the past and regional planning has helped to steer local road priorities, but what local governments may be able to provide in quantity they can't in quality.  What that means is that in recent years they have been great at constructing high-standard, smooth roads but not so great at providing technical routine maintenance.

DEVOLUTION TRENDS REFLECT DEMOGRAPHIC TRENDS

The idea of local control is really something that strikes at the whole urban/rural divide.  As rural areas lose population and urban areas become more populous, the interest in collective road solutions is waning as urban areas increase in power and rural areas lack the clout to fight these efforts.  The feeling is that because an urban county with 500,000 people or city with 50,000 people can handle road responsibility reasonably well that somehow a rural county or small population city is okay feasting on scraps.  When those with the political power are looking at roads from the perspective of their subdivision, they see a state government overwhelmed with too much responsibility and view local government as universally capable.  They forget there is a huge difference between a county with a population larger than Vermont and a county with a population no larger than a township in Vermont.  They think a big check from the state government should be adequate to take care of rural needs ignoring the fact that rural roads are often extremely unsafe because of the lack of technical expertise needed to operate them.  They may not be worried about it, but it is these same rural counties where urban dwellers escape for scenic vistas and outdoor recreation.  These people are likewise not familiar with the roads nor their conditions.  They drive these roads on the weekend, and sometimes they die in a car wreck on them because they failed to see that curve ahead (because there was no sign for it), cannot see the road at night because of faded lines or ram into an unsafe guardrail that likely has not been maintained in 40 years.  Maybe even the bridge they cross collapses, because the county lacked the resources to maintain and inspect it often or thoroughly enough.


The kinds of things that happen when you expect a rural county to handle a job only suited for highly centralized urban counties or state DOT's.  Photo by Free Brick Productions.

WHY CENTRALIZATION WORKS

The point is that centralization works.  It does not work perfectly, but it is a very effective tool to even the playing field between rural and urban areas, it promotes higher standards and it is cost-efficient.  It is also effective at making sure that rogue counties and cities who have the resources yet do not properly manage their own infrastructure are not left in charge of the entire process.  It is not unusual to see cities and counties in metropolitan areas of Atlanta, Nashville or Dallas with shoddy road standards, so why are they still being permitted to do so?  Township roads in New England and the Midwest are almost universally substandard regardless of regional population because that responsibility is heavily fragmented.  A township with 1,000 residents is certainly not capable of maintaining any road to anywhere near the standards that the law purportedly requires.  Centralization, on the other hand, provides the service levels of large population cities and counties to rural areas that cannot do nearly as much on their own, and it provides cost savings and higher standards to high population areas who also benefit from the economies of scale provided by centralization.  In highly centralized states, there is an expert at every level to handle technical matters while in decentralization it is difficult to find experts to review and supervise either state or local work.  While some local agencies have figured this out, the cost of doing this work correctly is much higher than if it was handled by a larger agency, and it does not need to be.

WHAT LOCAL AGENCIES KEEP SAYING, BUT NOBODY LISTENS

Over the years, local agencies continuously begged the states not to dump an enormous responsibility on them, and the states only responded by delaying the inevitable until they could find a way to pacify the counties and municipalities with a promise, often hollow, of more money and availability of vague state technical resources to the local governments.  With no voice of dissent other than the localities, the states ultimately backhanded them with a new unfunded mandate.  The amount the states spend per mile on administering county roads is often considerably higher than state-aid provided to the local governments.  While it is true that the states do need more money to build expensive road projects and that primary routes need to be prioritized, this does not call for dumping the entire responsibility on the local governments.  It calls for reforming the system in a way that the state becomes a service provider instead of an owner: in other words a partnership.  A partnership does not have a strict hierarchical structure.  It shares and combines certain elements where it makes the most sense and the best results can be achieved while it entrusts local agencies with others to do more when they are capable and where they have proven to be most effective.

South Carolina

South Carolina presently has a state road system that is 63% under state control.  Close to 50% of that responsibility includes state maintained secondary roads.  A recent, but delayed plan was to trim back 19,000 miles of those roads reducing that responsibility to 34%, but who is to say if that is done that they might not eventually come back for the remainder?  The quote below is from the South Carolina Association of Counties and it highlights the concerns often expressed on this site in a way that is succinct and very well-said:

Excerpts from: http://www.sccounties.org/legislative-alert-devolution-of-roads-to-counties-discussed-on-senate-floor
  • Many counties do not have the equipment to perform the road maintenance work being called for. DOT already has much of this equipment.
  • Proponents say that counties could bid out road maintenance to private contractors and would not need the equipment. Many counties do not have an engineer on staff to draft the specifications for these maintenance projects, evaluate the bids received, or inspect the work once performed. DOT has an engineering department and a procurement staff to bid work out which DOT cannot perform. If the procurement process is too slow, then DOT procurement needs to be examined.
  • Proponents say that they will give the money for the maintenance to the CTCs [county transportation committees]. Thirty-six of the CTCs are appointed by the legislative delegation and they bear no responsibility for poor decisions. In addition, state law requires at least 25 percent of the CTC funds be spent on state roads — many CTCs spend well over half of the CTC money on the state system.
  • Most, if not all, of the funding formulas created by the General Assembly are changed after they are created. The C Funds statute, which is how the CTCs are funded, has changed numerous times. Once roads are handed over, there is little guarantee that the funding will be either adequate or can be relied upon to remain adequate in the future.
Furthermore, the release stated:

"The assertion was also made that the counties could do the work cheaper. There was very little push back to those arguments and if you do not directly engage your senator in a discussion with the facts, there is a great likelihood that the idea to dump roads on the counties will gain support in the Senate. The stated reason for going to this approach is that the decisions made by the State Infrastructure Bank and Department of Transportation (DOT) were poor and that better decisions would be made locally by CTCs and counties."

Note that a mythology is created that corruption is the culprit when in fact lack of funds are the problem.  This same argument was used in every other attempt to force counties to take on more roads, especially in Alabama and Florida over 35 years ago.

Also, the rural/urban divide is CLEARLY highlighted in this excerpt:

"Specifically, Charleston, Anderson, and York counties have been named as counties which want the roads. Please contact your House members and let them know that your county does not want the roads, or in the alternative, your county council must have the option of whether or not to accept state roads."

All three of those counties have some of the highest populations in the state.  Anderson has 192,810 (2014), Charleston has 372,803 (2013) and York has 245,346 (2014).  Should three of the highest population counties in the state affect the livelihood of rural counties?  Six counties have populations under 20,000!  Should three high population urban counties decide the fate of 43 other counties?


Virginia


Virginia is presently one of four states that has county roads primarily under authority of the state DOT.  Here are a series of quotes regarding devolution from local leaders.  Even high population urban counties such as Prince William, Fairfax and Stafford accept that this will be a financial hardship to manage:

  • Prince William County
    • From: http://wamu.org/news/12/01/08/northern_virginia_leaders_oppose_devolution"Prince William County Board of Supervisor Corey Stewart, a Republican, says if the Governor and General Assembly push this idea, it's the local taxpayers that would suffer.  "It will cause a massive tax increase all over Northern Virginia, not just Prince William, but also Loudon, Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria," says Stewart."  
  • Fairfax County
    • From: http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/government/legislation/2016/draft-2016-legislative-program.pdf: Transportation Secondary Road Devolution - Oppose any legislation that would require the transfer of secondary road construction and maintenance responsibilities to counties, especially if these efforts are not accompanied with corresponding revenue enhancements. While there are insufficient resources to adequately meet the maintenance and improvement needs of secondary roads within the Commonwealth, the solution to this problem is not to simply transfer these responsibilities to local governments that have neither the resources nor the expertise to fulfill them. Further, oppose any legislative or regulatory moratorium on the transfer of newly constructed secondary roads to VDOT for the purposes of ongoing maintenance.
  • Stafford County 
    • "Road Bill Angers Localities" http://www.fredericksburg.com/news/roads-bill-angers-localities/article_c7071315-a53a-5f4f-85ab-a0da21f5bceb.html  
    • Excerpt from article quoting two county administrators: "We don’t want to get into road maintenance, period,” Barnes said. “I don’t think we ought to be in the road maintenance business.”  They’re both concerned about a budget item—separate from the transportation bill—that calls for a study of “devolution” of local roads from a state responsibility to a local one. Localities can already choose to take over their roads, but they don’t want to be forced into it.  “Devolution scares us, because road maintenance is a state function,” Romanello said.  Local governments fear the state will burden them with more responsibility without giving them more money to pay for it.  Even if devolution came with a monetary commitment, Romanello said, he’s reluctant to trust it.“That’s a commitment that’s only good as long as there’s a state budget in force, and that is what is so scary about devolution is that if we’re required to take over hundreds of lane miles of roads for maintenance, and the state’s not in a position to make a long-term commitment to local governments to help defray that cost,” he said.  Barnes expressed similar concerns, noting that localities would have to add staff to maintain roads.  “Devolution is not something we really want to embrace,” he said. “The funding for the road construction kind of fell off to nothing. So what’s the future of the road maintenance?"
Texas

Texas has for many years maintained a secondary highway system known as "farm-to-market" or "ranch-to-market" roads.  Combined with primary state routes, Texas's highway system is comprised of 26% of the state's road inventory and is the largest state highway system in the country by mileage.  Unfortunately, TxDOT is looking to begin unloading as many of these secondary state routes as they can deciding the easiest place to start is with the higher population cities and counties.  Their plan includes the transfer of 1,900 miles of state roads.  The absurd aspect of this is that the cities are responsible for construction on all farm-to-market roads (officially "urban roads") with the state only providing routine maintenance services.

In regards to this sneaky plan, here is an excerpt from "Dallas joins opposition to TxDOT plan to transfer maintenance of some state roads to local governments" by Tom Benning:

"Rawlings and Dallas City Council Member Vonciel Jones Hill wrote to TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson on Thursday that the city “strenuously opposes” the plan to hand over control of 1,900 miles of roads to urban cities and counties across Texas.  The extra maintenance costs for those affected local governments would total $165 million a year statewide. And the Dallas officials said in the letter to Wilson that the plan was “unfair” and “leans heavily toward double taxation.” 

 “This proposal will save taxpayers no money since it merely shifts costs from one branch of government to another,” Rawlings and Hill wrote. “Taxpayers would not pay less. Their money would simply be spent at a different level of government.” 

Fort Worth and the Texas Municipal League have also publicly voiced their dislike of the proposal. And Texas Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff, an Arlington businessman, said he has reservations about the idea."

Also, an interesting piece was written by a Texas law firm Hoffman and Kaliser, PC:

"Specifically, Texas traffic accidents can be caused by inadequate road maintenance, shoddy construction or poor design. Not uncommonly, those responsible may be relatively difficult to sue because they are public entities like units of federal, state, county or local governments. Texas law regarding the duty of governmental units to maintain roads is complicated by issues of sovereign immunity, or the ability of people to sue the government, a very complex legal concept. Determining governmental duties to warn of dangers and to repair "premise defects" in roads, the extent of those duties and whether the government has any discretion in the matter all may be issues in a personal injury lawsuit. Many are at risk: large commercial vehicles, SUVs, vans, buses, automobiles and motorcycles, not to mention bicycles and pedestrians. Examples of potentially dangerous problems from poor design, construction or maintenance include: 


  •  Debris or spilled liquid.
  • Potholes, cracks, shifting road surfaces and pits.
  • Slippery paving, marking or repair materials like those with metal, plastic or rubber components.
  • Inadequate traction or dangerous pavement ridges.
  • Poorly designed bridges, curves or grades.
  • Unsafe posted speed limits.
  • Inadequate roadside barriers.
  • Poorly placed or designed signs.
  • Signs or poles that do not safely give when struck.
  • Inadequate lighting.
  • Failure to warn of hazards.
  • Improper gravel grading.
  • Inadequate shoulders.
  • Missing or faded lane stripes. 
  • Tall grass or other vegetation that blocks vision.
  • Malfunctioning lights, signals or warning devices. 
  • And more." 

All of these issues above are very common on county roads and municipal streets in Texas, although Texas's sheer size calls for a regional instead of state-controlled solution.

Florida

It has been many years since Florida forced the counties to take over maintenance of 11,000 miles of state secondary roads.  The transition happened after legislation was passed in 1977 where counties were required to take on both construction and maintenance of secondary roads between 1980 and 1982.  The combined system comprised of almost 20% of the highway system.  Today is it less than 10%.

Excerpts from "Flagler Commissioners Oppose DOT Plans to Shift Road Designations, Maintenance Responsibilities" by the Daytona Beach Morning Journal: May 31, 1978:

"...and yet the DOT is throwing this [structurally unsound bridge] down the county's throat when we won't have the revenue to maintain SR 11"

This short quote highlights local concerns about the inability of county governments to manage large-scale roadway infrastructure.  At the time, Flagler County had a population of less than 10,000 residents!  They certainly were NOT prepared at the time.  As this example shows, the roadways in Florida turned to the local level were not just low-volume roads.  Many were highly-traveled arterial and collector roads that were never suited for local control.  While Flagler County has grown dramatically since the early 80's (ten times the population of 1980), many rural counties in northern and inland parts of Florida have suffered under this system.  Florida has ramped up their efforts to help counties with their "3R" program that has brought many of these former routes back into compliance as well as expanded local funding sources since the early 1980's.  Nonetheless, spot treatments do not provide the consistent results that a large state agency providing routine maintenance provides.  While Florida's system never did provide comprehensive state-aid to counties, it certainly relieved them of a much larger chunk of the highly traveled roads.


North Carolina

North Carolina is famous for being the father of centralization for local road maintenance.  They were the first state to assume control of every public road in the state previously maintained by counties and townships.  Townships were dissolved and a new classification of secondary state roads was created that resulted in the entire system of county roadways now being administered solely by the state.  Despite being known as the "good roads state" and providing one of the best maintained road networks in the nation since 1931, a periodic push to force counties to take on these roads continues to resurface.

In 2009, State Senator Bob Rucho pushed SB 758 mandating that counties take control of all secondary state roads returning them to the individual counties.  This would mean that one agency would be replaced by 100 meaning a very inefficient and poorly run road system.  While North Carolina is a fast growing state, this population is concentrated heavily in cities located along I-85.  Many areas of the state remain economically depressed from the collapse of tobacco and textiles, and other counties have a very low population.  Three counties in the state have under 10,000 residents and many others are low in population.  Who really, honestly believes these postage stamp counties will do a better job than NCDOT?

Two excerpts from Brunswick News entitle "Commissioners Oppose Transfer of Secondary Roads to County Control" really highlights the rural-urban divide on this issue:

"The resolution opposes any move that would reduce the amount of state funding coming in to maintain and improve secondary roads. It also opposes any move by the General Assembly that would force the county to have to pay for the roads with sales or property tax revenues."

"The bill is being pushed by Mecklenburg County.  Brunswick Commissioners' Chairman Bill Sue said at the board's agenda meeting that Mecklenburg doesn't have a lot of secondary roads because most of it is urban [added note: within the boundaries of the city of Charlotte].  "So they don't give a hoot," he said"


Harnett County passed a resolution opposing it for pretty much the same reasons as South Carolina above: 
An excerpt here states their concerns with actual figures: "WHEREAS, without the continuation of existing State revenue streams to pay for road upkeep and construction, Harnett County would be forced to raise its property tax rate 11.3 mills to keep up the current level of funding ($7,645,843) needed to maintain our existing roads; and WHEREAS, Harnett County does not have the equipment or capital to take on this massive additional responsibility."
DEVOLUTION AS A TREND IS A RESULT OF URBAN ELITISM

These examples above promote the idea that devolution is in a sense a form of elitism.  It is pushed mostly by urban legislators in prosperous urban counties who think that by depriving rural areas of state-aid that they can do far more than the state DOT can in an area that is more economically promising.  This logic is unsound in that rural areas will continue to be subsidized regardless, but that the standards are what will change.  How far that dollar can be stretched will be reduced, and a responsibility handled by professionals will be handed over to people who have no idea what they are doing.  The champions of devolution, urban counties, may also not do so well as they will find that properly staffing a local highway agency proves difficult, especially when they discover that the county tax base is being chipped away at by new and expanding municipalities who decide the county is not doing a good enough job like in many of the metropolitan areas of the Sunbelt.  The state DOT will also have to make cuts causing them to lose purchasing power and key staff that help the state do a far better job than they would with less funding and responsibility.  

If these urbanized counties have needs that outstrip what the state provides, the solution is to propose to the legislature an ability to raise more funding on a local level.  Regional and local sales taxes, local option gas taxes and bonds coupled with a property tax increase to fund major infrastructure upgrades make more sense than thinking that if the state drops thousands of miles of roads that the largess of state funding will flow their way without any consequences.  In no state is that ever true. What is true, however, is that every local agency does need some financial authority to finance new roadway infrastructure beyond what the state can afford.  It is always a fair compromise to allow local government to plan and build infrastructure while relying on the experts at the state DOT to maintain it for them.  What is not okay is to use that as a springboard to force the myriad of tiny local agencies rich and poor to handle it all themselves.  Why is it appear that hardly anybody besides the counties and municipalities themselves are even saying this?  

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Statewide Contracting Plan: Privatization Option

The Statewide Contracting Plan at its core proposes that road maintenance responsibility for local roads should largely be transferred to a cooperative agency that collectively supervises and pools resources for road maintenance for local agencies across an entire state.  What that primarily accomplishes is the creation of a means to simply combine resources to make the best of existing resources and employees so that costs go down while roadway standards improve.  The privatization option works on this principal, also, but with a twist: instead of shuffling existing employees from a local to regional level, the state instead requires all local agencies in their current form to be supervised by private engineering firms assigned to regions within a state.  These firms will be given the duties that would otherwise be assigned to a new agency statewide designed to handle this.


Could privatization be the solution for rural counties who are unwilling or unable to maintain their own roads to acceptable engineering standards?  This plan explores placing private firms in charge of clusters of counties and municipalities for the purpose of road maintenance.

The privatization option is by design a means to streamline and improve services by entrusting those services to one or more engineering firms who specialize in specific elements of traffic engineering and road maintenance.  In all, public-private partnerships are risky and will need to have safeguards in place to prevent monopolies, misuse of funds and political favoritism for certain firms over others.  In addition, the scope of a private firm will need to be limited to only maintenance and technical work to prevent private firms from having too much access to public funds.  A private firm is not a government agency, so they should not in charge of financing major construction projects.  The plus side of the privatization option is that if it is structured correctly that the management can continually change preventing what continues to be a serious problem in public agencies: poor management that is never replaced because the employees have vested, protected jobs where they are impossible to fire, reassign or demote due to political connections.  However, politics are also part of private contracts.  This is why laws are needed to prevent firms from having undue influence thus an unfair advantage.

While privatization contracts are common in many local governments across the world they tend to be very sporadic in nature and are done on the whims of the local government.  In Georgia, the cities of Milton, Sandy Springs and Johns Creek initially contracted their roads to a private firm during the transition into cityhood, but they have since taken back that responsibility.  This plan is different in that privatization measures are mandated statewide as a means to consolidate that responsibility into a larger agency, but that agency is not to another unit of government.

THE SEVEN ELEMENTS OF A PRIVATIZED STATEWIDE COOPERATIVE

The idea for a statewide cooperative under private management is similar to the public option, but because of the complications involved in a public-private partnership a detailed list of rules and regulations are needed to make sure that such an agreement is in the best interest of the state, the local governments and the taxpayers.  Creating a for-profit motive means that greater checks and balances are needed to make sure that excess costs are kept to a minimum, cost savings are realized and local standards actually improve.  The elements of a private statewide contract plan are as follows:

  1. Structure
    • Contracts are based on regions with an average population of 1 million residents per region within a single state.  States with low populations (under 1 million residents) may contract all local road responsibility to a single firm.
    • Regions may line up with state DOT divisions to allow the state DOT division to better supervise the work conducted by private firms
    • Contracts will not be for single counties, cities or a patchwork of local agencies.  The region must be clearly defined by the state covering multiple jurisdictions.
    • Engineering firms will be responsible for overseeing all traffic control and routine maintenance and will operate as an employee of the state working on behalf of the counties, cities and towns
    • Funding provided to the firms will be limited to engineering and routine maintenance activities.  Major construction projects, including resurfacing, may only be planned, financed or enacted by a public agency.
    • Private firms may hire subcontractors to assist them in completing any activities they do not wish to perform in house.
  2. Competition
    • Each region assigned by the state will be required to be supervised by a different firm.  No single firm will be permitted to manage more than one region at the same time.
    • All firms will be hired on 5 year contract basis
    • After the 5 year contract terminates, the same firm may not work within the same region for consecutive contracts but may be rehired in that region after the next contract with another firm expires
    • If number of available firms is less than the number of regions, the state may create its own firm to operate on a five year contract in a region or multiple regions operating without a private firm.
    • Commission rates must be established by law based on an average commission rate provided by all bidders.  In the instance that a 10% commission is agreed on, a firm bidding on a region must not be allowed to retain more than 10% commission meaning that 90% must be put towards expenses and 10% is retained for profit.  The commission rate may vary, but it must be established by legal restraint.
  3. Employment
    • All local employees maintain current positions although attrition will be established to help streamline services where duplication is not necessary
    • Employees of the local agencies will remain employees of the local agency.  The private firm may recommend corrective action against an employee, but the decision to fire or rehire remains with the local agency.
    • New employees should be employees of the firm, not the local agency but a clause may be made that allows employees to transfer their employment to the new managing firm at the end of a 5 year contract to prevent forced relocation.
    • The private firm will have its own staff of engineers and technicians who are used to oversee and assist all counties, cities and towns with traffic studies and road maintenance activities
    • If a county, city or town has one or more engineers hired expressly to handle road maintenance, they will become joint employees with the private firm under their direction working simultaneously with the local agency
  4. Standards
    • As a condition of the contract, all firms must comply with state and federal standards
      • State standards may be substituted for standards developed by a statewide multi-agency commission created in conjunction with recommendations from participating firms
    • The state reserves the right to supervise the activities of the firms to make sure they are following proper standards, following all protocols and meeting maintenance goals
    • Firms who fail to meet state and federal standards, misuse funds or fail to uphold their duties will be considered in breach of contract with penalties including termination, fines and/or removal from consideration from future contracts once their current contract expires
  5. Limitations
    • Private firms must respect local laws and ordinances and must structure all work based on the laws and ordinances of the county or municipality 
      • Example: if the town sets all speed limits to 25, the firm may not conduct an internal traffic study and raise the speed limit unless the town agrees to the change
      • Example: if truck routes are established on local roads and streets, the private firm must obtain permission and make modifications as necessary if they plan on posting guide or route signs along restricted roads
    • Private firms may not commence any construction activities without the prior funding and approval of the state, county or municipality
      • Example: fictional Allen County funds a project for reconstructing Whiteoak Trail from a dirt road into a two lane paved road.  The private firm may only be involved in construction supervision paid for by funds used for the project.
    • Private firms will only be permitted to maintain roadways maintained by counties and municipalities unless the state expressly expands that responsibility to cover state road maintenance within their assigned area
  6. Consolidation
    • Any private firm may consolidate any road maintenance function under their limited jurisdiction as long as there are no layoffs of existing government employees
    • Employees from more than one jurisdiction may be grouped together to provide specific duties if deemed reasonable by the private firm
    • Sparsely used and costly equipment will be stored and shared among all agencies and owned by the private firm
    • Duplication of services should be phased out wherever possible
    • Facilities and equipment may be combined, shared, taken out of use or relocated to best serve the needs of the region and to reduce costs 
  7. Oversight
    • The state should create a statewide agency designed to establish standards and to supervise the private firms to reduce the role of the state DOT
    • The statewide agency would be structured as an association made up of elected officials from each county, city and town involved to make sure that operations remain locally-driven
    • Policies and procedures may be further streamlined by creating the statewide agency
    • The agency would most likely have the same type of name as in the public version of the Statewide Contracting Plan such as "Tennessee Local Roads Commission"
    • The agency will also be able to oversee and approve contracts, set commission rates and serve as a liaison between local agencies, the private firms and the state DOT
    • In issues that the local roads commission does not adequately understand, they can defer all responsibility to the state DOT
DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF HOW IT WORKS

Structure

Consider Texas DOT.  The state has 25 districts across the state to manage road maintenance activities on state highways.  They could commence a pilot project in the Atlanta District in Northeast Texas with an agreement with all nine counties in that region to hire a private firm to oversee road maintenance on all the county roads and municipal streets within that district.  As part of the pilot project, we can assume that the lowest bidder charges the state $9 million to provide engineering services and to assume maintenance responsibility on the county roads in the region coming out to $1 million per county.  It should be taken into account that the contract amount shown here is fictional with actual contract amounts unknown thus it may be much higher or much lower depending on actual costs.  The costs would then be shared between TxDOT and the counties with the state paying half and the rest divided by the 9 counties based on county population ratios.  The region as a whole contains a population of just under 320,000 residents.  This would mean Morris County, a county with a population of 12,000 residents, would pay $182,000 out of the total $4.5 million cost.  This contract would include engineering services, traffic control, roadway repairs, equipment costs and supervision of all the separate departments.


The 25 districts of Texas could serve as a model on how to create a privatized statewide contracting model.  Atlanta district is in the green on the northeast corner made up of 9 counties.  If each of these 25 districts had a private engineering firm supervising county and municipal street maintenance it would greatly improve county road standards in a state with 254 counties.  All private firms would be supervised by a statewide local roads commission with technical oversight provided by TxDOT if needed.

If the pilot project proves successful, and it is demonstrated that cost savings were made and/or local road standards improved then Texas DOT would begin to roll out this approach to all the other districts across the state.  Home rule would not be challenged in that the state itself would not be taking on that responsibility on behalf of the counties but instead hiring a private firm who was working on behalf of the counties and municipalities.  To better manage costs, Texas DOT may also consider hiring the same firm to provide maintenance of the state's farm-to-market roads.  In that plan, the state pays for the maintenance but the private firm oversees that work on behalf of TxDOT.

Competition

Competition is very important to make sure that sweetheart deals are not made that waste public funds and give only a couple deep-pocketed firms as much power as the state.  The danger of privatization is that the private firm would have an unfair advantage and cut corners using public funds much like many counties and municipalities do today.  For that reason, safeguards must be put in place to make sure that public funds are used prudently and that no single firm ever has a specific advantage or control over a single area.  

To do this, engineering firms must be heavily restricted on bidding and contracts.  This means that each region must have a unique firm operating within the bounds of that region.  Furthermore, no firm may operate in a region for more than 5 years at a time.  More importantly, one firm cannot renew contracts with the same region consecutively placing that responsibility with at least one other firm every 5 years reducing the chance that one firm would be able to corner a market.  In addition, commission rates must be negotiated with a ceiling.  This means that the various firms come to an agreement with the state as to how much profit they must take to operate to prevent firms from taking in excess profits at the expense of actually maintaining the roads for which they are responsible.

Employment

Employment is a difficult issue in any change of management, but private firms will have to be restrained on their ability to supervise local agencies.  In time, all firms may eventually be operated by private employees, but initially all existing employees must remain government employees who remain the legal responsibility of whatever government agency they work for even if they are managed privately.  The private agency will not be able to hire or fire these existing employees, but attrition should be set to make sure that hiring by the public agency is frozen to allow the private firm to streamline costs as much as necessary.  Only the local agencies will be able to make employment decisions with existing employees in regards to firing and rehiring.  New hires would likely be employees of the firm and not the county, city or town.  However, due to the fluid nature of contracts existing employees would frequently be uprooted.  Thus, if requested, the government agency must be able to allow non-managerial employees who do not wish to relocate to be hired onto the new firm at the end of the contract with the old firm.  

Standards

Standards have been heavily discussed as part of the Statewide Contracting Plan.  In fact, the whole purpose of consolidating services is to improve standards beyond what a small county or municipality typically provides.  It is well known that a good private firm will often do a better and more thorough job than a public agency, but there are also bad firms who do not.  This means that the state must be able to supervise these firms, and the state must have the ability to terminate agreements with firms who do not follow proper standards or protocols.  If a firm misuses public funds, fails to complete projects, fails to meet proper standards or does not follow protocol in dealing with local agencies they will have face penalties including contract termination, fines and/or will not be allowed to ever contract for road maintenance services again in the state.  Most issues will likely be able to be mediated, but egregious actions by the private firm will be penalized.  This is one beauty of this method is that it is far easier to punish a private contractor who fails in their duties than it is another government agency who is often protected by home rule laws.

It should also be noted that standards may be created that differ from state standards in this system considering that state supervision would be limited to regulating the activities of the private firms.  If the statewide local roads commission elects to create separate standards from the state, they may do so if done in committee with the private firms hired to manage local roads.  The idea is not to have the state to take over local roads, so keeping a separate structure with limited state oversight is an ideal solution.

Limitations

A private firm will not have the same powers as a government agency.  While that is obvious in any contract, the private firms will be provided with broad powers to provide road maintenance services on behalf of local agencies.  However, this is limited on the fact that they will have no access to construction funding, will not be involved in construction activities unless permitted to do so by the local or state agency and will not be permitted to operate outside the limits of local laws and ordinances.  That means if, for instance, a county has specific road design standards, landscapes the public right-of-way, has set truck restrictions or has set speed limits the private agency cannot work outside those parameters unless given permission to do so.  A private firm may also not conduct any activities on any roads not specifically assigned to them unless the state or other agency has agreed for them to do so.

Consolidation

Local government by nature has a massive amount of service duplication.  The majority of local governments are not laid out based on efficient use of resources, but on a view that a smaller geographic area will result in faster services and more responsive local government.  That may be true in many cases, but it does not work as intended for road maintenance.  It drives up the costs of maintaining roads while limiting the available of trained professionals to handle technical problems.  In almost all cases, a local agency is providing the same service in the same area as either another agency provides within the same or nearby area.  An example of duplication of services is having a state DOT office maintaining state roads within the same county as a county road department.  In some cases that makes sense if, say, a high population city is in the middle of a very high population county but in a rural area duplication of services does not work.

An example might be rural Oklahoma.  Bryan and Choctaw Counties both border each other.  Choctaw County has a population of 15,000 while Bryan has 42,000.  Inside Bryan County, 15,000 residents are chipped away in the city of Durant with 12 other incorporated municipalities carving away the county's tax base.  Choctaw has a couple of towns with the largest, the county seat, taking up a third of the county's population.  A clear duplication of services exists not only with the counties and municipalities within, but also these two bordering counties who both run their own operations with low populations and few resources.  

If a private firm assumed all of the county and municipal responsibility in ODOT Division 2, which both counties fall within, the first thing they would do is to combine these agencies where it makes sense.  Bryan and Choctaw forces might be combined, and the cities within would be combined with the county forces.  It does not mean that all counties within the region would operate as one unit, but what it would mean is that if they decided it would make sense to combine these forces sharing equipment, manpower and materials they would do so.  If over the term of the contract, five employees either quit, were terminated or died then the firm could either downsize the staff or hire their own employees to replace the lost employees.  Quite possibly the 9 counties in the region may be combined into 3-6 units operating under the umbrella of the firm in charge.

Oversight

In no case should a private firm ever be entrusted to operate without constant supervision from a public agency.  In this case, the public option of the Statewide Contracting Plan is still valid, but with the technical side hollowed out.  Instead of organizing a public agency staffed with engineers and technicians supervising multiple local agencies as a single unit, multiple private firms are hired who already have that staff in place.  What remains of the public element is a political committee that has oversight of the private firms. left with a more political structure.  An association of all local government agencies would be formed to oversee and steer activities conducted by the private firms and to work on behalf of the state in establishing policies and procedures.  On behalf of the state, the agency will have permission to set commissions, manage firms and approve/reject contracts.  The statewide local roads commission may also hire its own chief engineer to oversee the activities of the private firms.

PRIVATIZATION AS A PATHWAY TO ESTABLISHING A COOPERATIVE HIGHWAY SYSTEM

Transitions from one public agency to another are perilous, and the fear of job losses and titles are very real.  If the idea is to centralize road maintenance responsibility under a statewide unit, doing so with private forces may be the best way to do so.  By privatizing the process, it allows the entire process to be done on a trial basis without any disruption to existing local agencies.  Instead of consecutive five year contracts, the initial five year contract is the only contract allowing competing engineering firms to help transition a decentralized maintenance structure into a cooperative structure over a five year transitional period.  Using private forces will also allow outside input on how to better operate a centralized public agency working on behalf of local agencies.  When the transition is complete, the local roads commission will select employees from all participating firms to become employees of the statewide local roads commission with the private option transitioning to a public option.

PRIVATIZATION MAY WORK WHERE CENTRALIZATION DOES NOT

In states with strong home rule, the ability to consolidate public services to a state or regional level is difficult and usually impossible.  If it is done based on a voluntary approach, the result is a piecemeal approach of participating and non-participating agencies with politics instead of need deciding who participates.  If participation is too low, it becomes difficult to pool resources resulting in status quo becoming the most appealing option.  Low participation also results in finger pointing if either a consolidated or free agency feels that the other has an unfair advantage.  This is a big reason why states have abandoned any efforts to directly aid local governments.  

In this plan, the state government stays hands-off with the day-to-day operations of local road maintenance, but they provide a means to supervise local roads indirectly by entrusting a private firm to do that job for them.  Privatization of road maintenance may also be a tool to clean up local waste and corruption as a private employee under contract obligation will not be affected politically the way a public employee would doing the same job.  The private firm makes those decisions with the cooperation of local governments while the state is there to put a stop to those decisions if the private firm is in major error.  Using the centralized privatization model allows local agencies to hand off responsibility for road maintenance to a larger firm that just happens to not be another government agency. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Deficient Safety Standards Spotlight: City of Cullman, AL

Bad ideas are contagious, and this is definitely the case in Northern Alabama.  A previous post on Morgan County was, unfortunately, not the exception when highlighting the incompetence, negligence and total lack of concern for public safety demonstrated by local governments throughout the region.  Clear answers are still not available in how counties and cities/towns with a state-funded county engineer and traffic control specialist to assist them cannot seem to do a better job than this.  Do those public officials lack power or does the state not care what they are doing with the people's money?  Everything shown here in the City of Cullman is absolutely disgraceful.  It is the all-you-can-eat buffet of problems including:
  • Non-compliant devices routinely used
  • Stretched out and shrunk arrows, text and symbols
  • Poorly thought out custom signage
  • Nearly universally incorrect fonts in use
  • Custom signs used where an MUTCD compliant device is typically used
  • A complete lack of traffic studies

Just one of thousands of signs in Cullman City and County with non-standard fonts.  This one is on 8th St. in Cullman.  This and all photos on this post contributed by Free Brick Productions

So how do you fix this?  Clearly in this case local control is NOT the answer.  What is sad is that Cullman County was one of the 10 "captive counties" meaning that prior to 1979 the state handled traffic control matters in both the city and the county.  The county of Cullman is not great, but the city is MUCH worse.  This means that at one point that local residents could expect consistently MUTCD-compliant signage courtesy of the state of Alabama, but home rule won after a prolonged legislative battle.  As a result both the county and city have been free for 37 years to screw it up as they choose.  What's there today in Cullman is certainly consistent...consistently wrong.  Obviously we have a solution to the problem, and a contributor known by the pseudonym Free Brick Productions has provided a generous helping of criminal negligence to highlight why something needs to be done.  This is why a dubious spotlight is being cast on this shameful burg.  When someone dies because of faulty signage in the City of Cullman, we hope that the surviving family members find this site so that they know what to do.


8th St. & 2nd Ave.


Along Arnold St.


Wrong font, wrong dimensions, shrunk text and wrong heights.  Nothing is right about this sign at all!  2nd Ave. near Clark St.


2nd Ave. & 2nd St.  Were they really so lazy that they couldn't even set the text at the correct height?  It's one thing to use the wrong fonts, but this is pure laziness.


If you weren't looking up close, the slash for the No Parking is so thin you'd think they were permitting parking here.  1st Ave. & 6th St.

As you see here in the last five photos, the shape is compliant, but the signs are not.  It's not exactly clear what font is being used here, but in all cases the layout, text height and fonts are by definition not a traffic control device.  A savvy motorist pulled over for disobeying these signs could successfully argue in court that the devices did not comply with the MUTCD and were thus invalid.  A motorist or pedestrian injured because the devices were faulty could also successfully sue, although with these devices being permitted the injured party would most likely have to appeal out of county to succeed.  With the School sign in particular, it is also clear that they are in violation of reflectivity requirements in that the sign shown is clearly far past its service life.  Also note the incorrect post height on "DO NOT BLOCK DRIVE" where the clearance in an urban condition with potential pedestrian movements is supposed to be 7'.  That is definitely not 7 feet.

The important thing to note about Cullman County and the City of Cullman is that this is not in a rural area.  The county itself is part of the Birmingham combined statistical area and has a population of over 80,000 residents.  The city itself has a population of 14,000 residents, 17.5% of the county population.  Both have a reasonable tax base with interstate access, a couple major shopping centers and a growing population.  While the resources are likely insufficient to provide state-level traffic control, they could certainly do better than this!  Notice that home rule advocates never tell you something like this could happen.


This diagram on 8th St. could lead to death because it's so difficult to understand.  The text is too small, symbols are confusing and a black square does not even remotely symbolize a car.  At first glance it looked like dashed lines.  There is a standard device for "DO NOT BLOCK INTERSECTION" (R2-7), and it is universally understood.  The public does not need to know there is a sensor at the intersection, either.  Take this mess down, install a "DO NOT BLOCK INTERSECTION" sign and it works.


The public is not likely to recognize this as a traffic control device.  It's a regulation for a warning, the fonts are wrong and the information is excessive for the condition.  The sign following in the back is correct, however, except for the fonts.  1st Ave. SW

If any of you have read the proposals, you know that there is more than one solution.  However, in Alabama this remains a significant problem in many counties and not all proposals are workable based on the politics of the state.  Overall it is well-known that the state is having financial problems.  Furthermore, the way the laws were written involving revocation of captive counties it would be extremely difficult to reinstate state control to county roads in any of the 10 counties that were involved.  Despite Alabama's reputation for controlling counties, then-governor Fob James was absolutely insistent that counties could not rely on the state for road maintenance any longer.  As a fierce proponent of home rule, the fate of this county was sealed in early 1979.  



This is just one reason low bridges keep being hit by trucks leading to costly repairs that the public must pay for.  This low bridge and these signs are found on Sheraton Road.  The sign is too small (a non-compliant 24" x 24" in the first image), the clearance is not defined and the fonts are wrong and hard to read.  Signs like this are supposed to be 36" x 36" on conventional roads.  In addition, using W12-2 in advance of the condition would be far more likely to be noticed than a "LOW CLEARANCE" plaque.


The sign is mostly correct, but the 8 is unreadable from a distance since the font is a non-improved font not expected by motorists.   Note the obvious truck damage from years past.  Sign is located on Sheraton Road.

The simplest solution to fix these traffic sign issues is to merge traffic control responsibility between the city and the county.  Should the county be operating on skeleton funds so that the largest municipality in the county can waste money on garbage like this?  Combining the two together would probably mean better traffic control standards for both the city and the county.  It would not be a perfect solution, but this is one of the major problems with local control is that cities drain resources from the county while inversely cities are too small to provide high-quality technical services.  If counties and municipalities as a rule shared traffic control services, issues like this would be rarer.  In counties with few municipalities roadway standards are typically much better.  It also helps in a joint venture that there are more people involved making sure that more people are there to speak up if things are not being done the right way.


Childhaven Road northbound.  It's not that the condition here is exactly wrong, but it's the way it's done.  "Church" is no longer an official device.  It was once in the MUTCD W39-3, but was removed decades ago.  "Hidden Drive" calls for "Hill Blocks View" with an advisory.  Of course, those details ignore that the borders, fonts, dimensions and use of "CHURCH" as a supplemental plaque further demonstrate abject laziness.


What's right here does not justify what's wrong.  The warning device is poorly placed and both the street name sign and warning sign have incorrect fonts.  Most likely the Stop sign is correct due to being bulk-ordered from a contractor in lieu of being made in-house.  All of these signs here highlight why in-house sign production should be heavily scrutinized and not allowed unless the state has approved the local agency to do this work.


Reflectivity requirements were clearly ignored in this very bad recycling job of an old "TRUCK ROUTE" sign on 8th St.  


This is not how trailblazers are done.  The only thing correct here is the state shape, and even that is not technically correct since this leads to U.S. 31, NOT AL 31.  State and U.S. routes in Alabama do not share the same number like most other states.  The arrow is not correct, font is wrong and there is no "TO" (M4-5) sign on top.  While a lack of trailblazers is a problem, this half-hearted effort does not deserve any praise.  Sign is located on Golf Course Road.


Do they really think nobody would ever notice how wrong this is?  It has been passed around various forums for how ridiculous it looks, and it is assemblies like this that should result in a loss of funding for localities who do stuff like this.  Better yet, how has the city been allowed to put something like this along a state road?  This is on U.S. 278 (3rd St.)  If nothing else this is an example of why cities and towns should not be responsible for traffic control along state roads even if the state is paying them to do it on their behalf.

The best solution, however, is to create a statewide cooperative model.  By removing direct traffic control responsibility from the local governments and putting it on a level where professional standards can always be applied, shoddy signs like these would become a rarity.  Since to many the Statewide Cooperative Plan sounds like gibberish, we should give it a name.  We should call it the Alabama Local Roads Commission.  The primary duty of the Alabama Local Roads Commission is to consolidate all traffic control responsibility to a statewide commission jointly owned by all the counties and cities in the state.  This means that instead of the city or county managing traffic control you have a central unit that oversees, purchases, distributes and produces traffic control devices on behalf of the state's counties, cities and towns.  The cooperative model does not mean ownership, thus local governments including Cullman can still set their own speed limits and traffic ordinances such as truck restrictions.  The Local Roads Commission also provides traffic engineering services and, if necessary, provides full road maintenance.  According to the plan that was discussed, more populous counties like Cullman would have either just traffic control handled by the commission or a farm-to-market system directly administered by the Commission with other streets remaining local.  However, traffic control duties would universally transfer to the Commission thus neither the city or county would be directly responsible for these (terrible) signs.  Cullman City and County under this plan could still finance their own road projects, construct roads but routine maintenance either in the form of traffic control or, if chosen, comprehensive road maintenance would transfer to the Alabama Local Roads Commission.  Funding would come from a pooling of resources on a local level to make this possible coupled with state-aid funding.


This is a lawsuit waiting to happen.  Unless this is the United Kingdom, they are literally sanctioning drivers to drive head-on into traffic in the wrong lane.  While the arrows, text and color are also wrong, this is a glaring and extreme error in judgment.  This is on 3rd Ave. & 4th St., but others of this same messed up sign were observed in various locations across the city.


Regulation or warning?  There seems to be some confusion in this city.  4th St. & 6th Ave.


Non-standard speed limit signs are a standard situation in Cullman.  Sign is located on Main Ave.


Stretched arrow, wrong fonts.  Not the worst example, but a demonstration that local forces are doing the bare minimum to get by in terms of designing traffic control devices.


Irrelevant and unexpected in this location nagging motorists about the local speed trap.  Schwann Avenue & Oak Drive.  


Illegible at almost any speed.  Convent Road.


Pretty self-explanatory in what's wrong here with the sign itself.  What's also wrong is that this is a 90 degree reverse turn to the LEFT meaning that the use of W1-5R (winding road to the right) is absolutely WRONG.  The correct sign here would be W1-3L.  This is why people tend to not take traffic control devices seriously.   When the public cannot rely on their accuracy it is safer not to have them at all.  Oak Dr westbound.


I smell hypocrisy here.  They can't follow the law in designing MUTCD-compliant traffic control devices, but they take at least two weeks wages at full-time minimum wage (what a high percentage of Cullman County's residents earn) for violating these trash signs?  They can't afford to follow the law themselves, but they then expect the people that live here to follow the law.  Oak Dr. westbound.


...or a rock will fall out of the sky?  I guess the way to make up for a completely unacceptable use of sign shapes, fonts and dimensions is to add an exclamation point...because a W3-5 sign is just absolutely budget busting!!  This is another stinker in the trashfest known as Oak Drive.



These are not ads for Burma Shave, so what's with the row of yellow rectangles here on Oak Drive?  What is AHEAD is nothing but trouble for motorists trying to navigate the jungle of a clearly corrupt city employees who put public safety last.


And then there's this on Oak Drive.  What is right with this?  Answer: nothing.  A T-intersection sign (W2-4) is incorrectly marking what requires a W2-2 condition.  "Hidden Drive" is not a standard device for this condition and "SLOW" is not an advisory speed.  Street view shows this was a recent install. What should be here is shown below:


If the condition above was corrected, the assembly would look like this.  The advisory speed would need to be determined in a traffic study of the area, but this is a far more compliant condition.  The W2-4 is replaced with W2-2, "Hill Blocks View" (W7-6) replaces "Hidden Drive" and "SLOW" is replaced with an actual advisory speed (although the speed limit of 25 MPH is probably slow enough!).  The post height is also corrected.

The issues here with Cullman are extreme and almost 95% in violation of the MUTCD if not for the Stop signs.  It is the worst case that we have ever seen.  In this case, ALDOT should mandate that all non-compliant devices be replaced as-is at the expense of the city or county that installed them in order to receive any more state-funding including the cost of traffic studies.  However, Cullman once again proves that the root of the problem is entrusting something as technical as traffic control planning, a position that typically requires a specialized PE license, to local agencies with nobody qualified to handle that responsibility.  This is not something that local agencies should be expected to do as a matter of principle unless they are a very large population county with a high level of funding and responsibility.  It is likely that the employee(s) involved in these signs are very poorly trained with little oversight.


Can you read that text below?  Pretty hard isn't it?  BTW, "Right Turn Only" is usually displayed with this nifty sign called R3-5R.  Still on Oak Drive hoping to arrive alive.


Close, but no cigar on Stadium Drive.


Did they mean Childhazard?  Because with these signs on the roads it most certainly is one!  2nd Avenue & 13th St.

The statewide cooperative plan was discussed as the best option to correct the issues found across the City of Cullman, but having the county take over this responsibility might also make a difference placing this duty directly into the hands of the county engineer.  In order to fix this long-term, either this option or transferring traffic control responsibility back to ALDOT.  It is clear from these images that too few employees and not enough professionally-trained staff is involved in traffic control in Cullman.  If Alabama traded up this responsibility to a regional or statewide unit, issues like this would quickly disappear.  Hopefully this latest example once again proves that a few good counties, cities and towns do not mean that a broad home rule brush can be used to create a masterpiece.  Cullman residents are left wanting with these inexcusable devices, but is anyone willing to stand up and change this?