Texas has three of the 10 biggest-spending highway special districts, while California has two. Five states, including New York and New Jersey, have one district among the top 10. The data is from the latest (2012) Census of Governments, issued by the U.S. Census Bureau. Statistics from the latest Census is being released on a piece-by-piece basis. Another source, the Census Bureau’s Governments Division web page has more information on government counts for the U.S.

The top-spending highway special district, the New York and New Jersey Port Authority, weighs in with almost a half billion dollars in highway-related spending. Next on the ranking (see below) is the North Texas Tollway Authority with about $370 million in highway-related spending.

Steve Owens, who compiled the list, says that the districts in this ranking all have large non-highway spending categories their budgets. Owens, who is Chief, Government Organization and Special Programs Branch, Governments Division at the U.S. Census Bureau, tells GPN: “Highways aren't always the primary function of the districts in this list. For example the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority also operate airports in addition to toll roads, bridges, and other activities.”

Owens says district number four on the list, the Harris County MTA, doesn't operate highways directly. “The highway expenditure for that district primarily consists of local infrastructure assistance which it is statutorily required to disburse to its member governments who then use the money for road projects.”

Owens says that in general, state, county and municipal governments maintain highways. Some states, says Owens, have unique arrangements. In Idaho for instance, the state allows for large regional highway networks to be maintained by special districts.

Missouri, says Owens, has transportation development districts that are permitted to float bonds to improve and expand existing highway systems. Those systems, he adds, are eventually absorbed into state and local networks.

There are a total of 1,099 highway special districts in the U.S. Some of the activities of these districts include: construction, maintenance, and operation of highways, streets, and related structures, including toll highways, bridges, tunnels and ferries. Street lighting maintenance and snow and ice removal are other activities that these districts perform.

This ranking (below) of highway special districts, says Owens, “provides a great illustration of the diversity of special districts in the United States, and highlights the fact that there are many different approaches that can be used to solve transportation issues.”

Rank    District Name                                                                     Spending                   State
1    NEW YORK AND NEW JERSEY PORT AUTH.                      $451,998                 NY
2    NORTH TEXAS TOLLWAY AUTH.                                          $370,290                 TX
3    SAN BERNARDINO ASSOCIATED GOVERNMENTS           $350,089                CA
4    HARRIS COUNTY METROPOLITAN TRANSIT AUTH.        $188,468                TX
5    DELAWARE RIVER PORT AUTH.                                            $167,261                   NJ
6    CENTRAL TEXAS REGIONAL MOBILITY AUTH.                $137,584                 TX
7    SACRAMENTO TRANSPORTATION AUTH.                          $110,648                  CA
8    DELAWARE RIVER JT. TOLL BRIDGE COMM.-PA & NJ  $103,124                   PA
9    DELAWARE RIVER & BAY AUTH.                                            $99,939                  DE
10  METROPOLITAN WASHINGTON AIRPORTS AUTH.           $96,379                 VA
Spending is in thousands of dollars, and only represents the amounts that those districts spent on highways.