On the surface, roadways seem understandably impersonal. Whether they are gravel or concrete, their finite function is to transport people and goods. But against the backdrop of county government, roads and the issues they bring to the commissioners court are often personal and anything but simple.
Consider the history between the commissioner and the road. Before population booms and urban sprawl, roads connected county commissioners to constituents.
For instance, a new family buys the house on the hill. As the movers cart furniture up the gravel hill to the home, the owners begin to notice rocks kicking into the air. A few months go by, the family grows weary of the rough surface, and they decide to call the county commissioner. A relationship is formed.
In many counties this scenario is still a reality. Under the Ex Officio Road Commissioner System, commonly known as the precinct system, commissioners are the road commissioners of their precincts.
“In a small, rural county, in particular, we can oversee the work ourselves,” said DeWitt County Commissioner Curtis G. Afflerbach. “The people call us who have elected us, and it seems to work real well. Each one of us has our own crews and our own areas that we take care of, and we can get work done quickly.”
Other counties have implemented a system in which roads are viewed from a countywide perspective, versus a precinct perspective, and placed under the supervision of either an engineer or road administrator, known as the County Road Department System. This system is often referred to as the unit system. Of course, the unit system does not prohibit a constituent from phoning a commissioner regarding a road concern. However, the commissioner is no longer directly responsible for the daily upkeep of the roads
“With me, it’s a time factor,” said Nacogdoches County Commissioner Reggie Cotton. “The unit system allows me, as a county commissioner, to deal with my constituents as needed and participate in other community activities versus being out on the roads all the time.” However, Cotton said, the county’s road administrator keeps all four commissioners apprised of road activity, meaning commissioners are still able to answer their constituents’ questions and/or address their immediate concerns.
Still other counties have selected the Road Commissioner System, utilizing either a road district or consolidated format with county commissioners maintaining collective and supervisory control over the road commissioner(s) who are employed by the county. The county commissioner is not the road commissioner.
Road systems are not a matter of right vs. wrong. Rather, commissioners are trying to balance constituents’ needs, construction and maintenance costs, and projections of growth. And, of course, what works well in one county may not be the solution for another.
A county road is a public road that has been accepted for maintenance by the commissioners court pursuant to the standards set by the court, said Fort Bend County Road Commissioner Marc Grant. These roads are located in the unincorporated areas of the county.
There are many roads within the county that are not county-maintained roads, Grant said, including:
private roads constructed in private subdivisions, maintained by the private residents/homeowners association;
interstate highways, U.S. highways, state highways, farm-to-market roads, spurs, and park roads maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation;
roads within an established subdivision that have not been accepted for maintenance, therefore are still the responsibility of the developer; and
roads within the incorporated limits of cities, villages, towns or other entities, maintained by those entities.
With regard to the authority of the commissioners court, Bob Bass, attorney with Allison, Bass & Associates, LLP, cited the Transportation Code and the Local Government Code.
According to Chapter 251 of the Transportation Code, the court is to “make and enforce all reasonable and necessary rules and orders for the construction and maintenance of public roads except as prohibited by law.”
Article 16, Section 24 of the Texas Constitution, together with Chapters 251, 258 and 281 of the Texas Transportation Code, allow the county commissioners court to lay out and establish, change and discontinue public roads and highways and to exercise general control over all roads, highways, ferries and bridges in their counties.
Road statutes and legal opinions offer additional guidelines delineating authority and limitations:
An individual commissioner has no authority to establish a county road.
Roads should be classified as 1st, 2nd or 3rd class roads.
The court may establish or change the status of a county road.
The county cannot maintain a private road.
County labor, materials and equipment cannot be used on private property.
It is vital to have clear authority for maintenance on all roads in the county inventory.
Working the Systems
Chapters 251 and 252 of the Texas Transportation Code discuss general county authority relating to roads and bridges and systems of county road administration, respectively. The first two road management options are known as precinct systems, whereby county commissioners oversee the roads in their individual precincts.
Road Supervisor System – Chapter 251.004
The county commissioners are the supervisors of the public roads in a county unless the county adopts an optional system of administering the county roads under Chapter 252.
The statute requires a county commissioner serving as a road supervisor to supervise the public roads in the commissioner’s precinct at least once each month and make a report during the ninth month of the county’s fiscal year showing:
the condition of each road or part of a road and of each culvert and bridge in the commissioner’s precinct;
the amount of money reasonably necessary for maintenance of the roads in the precinct during the next county fiscal year;
the number of traffic control devices in the precinct defaced or torn down;
any new road that should be opened in the precinct; and
any bridges, culverts, or other improvements necessary to place the roads in the precinct in good condition, and the probable cost of the improvements.
Ex Officio Road Commissioner System