Duplication of State, County and City Roadbuilding and Maintenance Organizations

Michigan also must consider reform of its somewhat unique county road commission system, and the way it interfaces with city and highway related organizations. Should such commissions even exist? While MDOT contracts with 63 road commissions for maintenance work, there is still extensive duplication among MDOT, county road commission and city public works functions, and it is not at all clear that the current system leads to cost effective construction and maintenance.

For instance, few counties and cities have sophisticated productivity and cost control measurement systems in place, and compared to private sector operators, very little is done to benchmark operations against other providers. Nor are there aggressive "continuous improvement" management programs in place to increase productivity and efficiency. Nor are county road commissioners always known for their roadbuilding expertise. Possible reforms include elimination of separate county road commissions with elected commissioners and integration of such operations into county government, increased MDOT use of road commission staffs and/or facilities for plowing and general maintenance of state highways in lieu of state garages and staff, and turning over major county construction design projects to MDOT design staff.

While there are many exceptions, the commissioner positions and the entire commission organization are often patronage machines at their finest. A recent effort by county commissioners to have the legislature pass a bill (H.B. 5080) to allow county road funds to be used for commissioner insurance and retirement programs points out some of the potential problems.42 Recent stories about delays in spending Detroit Department of Public Work monies for road repairs, and the $70 million in funds which have accumulated unspent primarily from state user taxes, are more evidence of potential problems.43

It may be possible to reduce duplication between county highway operations and city public works departments by providing legislative incentives for cities and counties to contract with each other to reduce costs. County road commissions and city public works departments are also suspected of being highly patronage-oriented, and it would appear that many of their functions could be privatized with major savings on maintenance expenses. A careful evaluation might well find out that counties should limit their operations to design and procurement functions, with all snow removal, maintenance, repaving and new construction functions carried out by private contractors. With the state and federal governments providing the bulk of money for county and local operations, there is little incentive for local government to consider changes to an age-old system that offers many public employment jobs and tolerates poor performance in maintaining roads.