Paying for them is another major problem facing owners, Varnedoe points out. “Funding is a big challenge,” he said, “but a lot of the secondary roads just haven’t had the same level of planned maintenance and preservation that the higher-service roads have.”
Fortunately, surface transportation reauthorization is giving the secondary roads community an opportunity to spotlight their needs.
“Most roads and bridges in the United States are under local jurisdiction, but national and state transportation funding policies starve them of the resources necessary to maintain a state of good repair and meet growing mobility needs,” according to a recent NACE reauthorization advocacy publication. “The consequences of this shortsightedness range from an appalling highway safety record, to a pervasive negative impact on local and regional economies. A new and more enlightened federal, state and local partnership is needed to restore balance to highway investments and achieve important economic, environmental and safety goals.”
Not only do local jurisdictions not have enough funds to maintain all their secondary roads, at least one state legislature considered dumping the secondary roads on its network on its counties.
In spring 2009, legislators introduced three bills into the North Carolina General Assembly that would force cities or counties to take responsibility for maintaining thousand of miles of roads now controlled by the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
Each bill targeted secondary roads. One bill would have affected about 64,000 miles of the roughly 79,000 miles of roads the DOT maintains, including in-city roads. Two others targeted in-city DOT-controlled roads only, but because of the way they defined roads eligible for state maintenance, in some cases would force the state to take over roads now belonging to cities, reported the Durham Herald-Sun. But the net effect would be to reduce DOT’s maintenance burden.
“North Carolina is unique because in all but a few states, counties and townships tend to be responsible for secondary roads,” Varnedoe says. “During the Great Depression, North Carolina took over maintenance responsibility for the county roads. Now North Carolina is facing fiscal challenges, like all other states, and they looked at the possibility of divesting themselves of part of the network, as now the state has some 80,000 centerline miles to maintain, far more than other states. That did not come about, but the discussion continues.”
Struggles of the states
The funding gap exists in every part of the nation. In 2009, California’s 478 cities and 58 counties owned 81 percent of the state’s roads, NACE’s state affiliate reported. “A 2007-08 survey shows that California’s local streets and roads are on the edge of a cliff,” NACE reported. “On a scale of zero (failed) to 100 (excellent), the statewide average pavement condition index (PCI) is 68 (“at risk category”). If current funding remains the same, the statewide condition is projected to deteriorate to a PCI of 58 in 10 years, and further to 48 (“poor” category) by 2033.”
In Indiana in 2009, county highway and city and town street departments maintained over 84,000 miles of roads and streets, accounting for nearly 90 percent of all of the public roads in Indiana. “Annual travel on county and municipal roads is estimated at 34 billion annual vehicle miles or 46 percent of the total miles traveled in Indiana,” according to the Indiana LTAP Center at Purdue University. “The short-term funding shortfall for local agencies is estimated at $5.4 billion.”
But progress is possible when tools such as NACE’s Local Roads Matter! promotion are used. The New York State County Highway Superintendents Association faced ongoing challenges while fighting for state funding year after year, NACE reported. In response, in 2005, the association worked for a more visible presence with the state administration and legislature.
The campaign stuck to the slogan and theme, and highlighted the impact of local roads on the state and local economy. Then, in 2009 more than 500 county and town superintendents, commissioners and highway industry professionals rallied in Albany, the New York State capital, and spent two days meeting with state lawmakers to request the funding necessary to address the needs for local highway systems, which make up 87 percent of the state’s roads.
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