Dissolving road commissions a promising sign for bike and ped advocates
Dissolving road commissions
~ by guest contributor Rory Neuner
Bicycle and pedestrian advocates in Michigan have reason to celebrate legislation signed into law by Governor Rick Snyder in February. Public Acts 14 and 15 allow county boards of commissioners to dissolve and take over the duties of county road commissions.
Dissolving road commissions has been applauded as a way to reduce costs and the redundancy in the number of units of government in Michigan. After all, Michigan has more layers of government than the layers of clothing one might don on a cold, snowy day in Houghton.
This legislation is an opportunity to remove the biggest barrier to implementing complete streets in Michigan counties. It opens the door for bicycle, pedestrian, transit, and place-advocates to work with their county governments to rethink the way they are providing transportation services. It will help establish a more value based approach to designing communities.
I’ll spare you the full history of county road commissions in Michigan (PDF), however, here are the basics: road commissions came to being in 1893, based on Bay County’s 1883 Stone Road District. Each of Michigan’s 83 counties has a county road agency. In most counties, the road commission is the agency responsible for building and maintaining county roads.
Prior to PA 14 and 15, counties had no authority to manage roads. That was the job of the road commission. And in most Michigan counties, the transportation planning that’s gone on at the road commission has focused solely on moving cars; not people.
The County Road Association of Michigan (CRAM) makes no secret about this bias. CRAM (what a name!), which represents county road commissions in Lansing, was one of the only groups to oppose Complete Streets legislation successfully passed in 2010. And CRAM’s legislative priorities routinely include eliminating the Act-51 requirement that agencies spend 1% of their funds on non-motorized (PDF).
Aside from CRAM’s politics, dissolving road commissions is an opportunity to move our county governments away from auto-centric planning and maintenance toward a people-centric approach to transportation.
Ingham County (mid-Michigan) is home to the first serious dissolution effort, and it’s a great case study in what an opportunity this is for bicycle and pedestrian advocates. Back in December, the Ingham County Board of Commissioners began the process of absorbing its road commission. This week the County (LSJ) will hold its second public hearing and the board will take a final vote in late April.
For the last several years, the Ingham County Health Department has been working to encourage communities across the county to adopt complete streets ordinances. The Health Department is overseen by the Board of Commissions, which passed its own resolution encouraging complete streets. But until PA 14 and 15, counties couldn’t manage their own transportation infrastructure. As Todd Scott pointed out over at M-Bike.org (MB) “(c)ounty governments (could) manage parks, human services, health departments, airports, water supply, refuge collection, lake improvements, libraries – but not roads.”
So despite the best efforts of the Health Department, complete streets was going nowhere at the County level. In the middle stood the Ingham County Road Commission, with its own priorities that didn’t include complete streets. If the Ingham Board of Commissions moves forward with dissolution, its hopeful that new Ingham County Department of Transportation will tackle complete streets.
The location of this new Department should also mean better coordination between transportation spending and the other services counties provide. It improves the chances that connections are made, for example, between a county park trail system and a bike lane on a county road.
A Platform for Local Funding Options?
In the future, embedding transportation in County governments may also set up the structure necessary for counties to pursue a local revenue option to fund improved transportation services. Among the dozens of transportation-related proposals Governor Snyder has outlined over the last year is a plan to allow counties in Michigan to levy their own vehicle registration fees to fund transportation improvements. Under Snyder’s proposal (T4MI), voters would get to decide at the local level whether to raise vehicle registration fees, money that would be used for road and transit spending in that region.
Counties that act now to consolidate their road commissions and move toward a 21st century vision for transportation services may be better positioned to put such options in front of voters, and in turn, build safe, vibrant, healthy communities focused on providing access to goods and people for all modes.
Please, ask your neighborhood County Commissioner what he or she is going to do about it. *