Lori Smith, who who lives on Howell Mill Road in Buckhead, likes decisions the city of Atlanta has made in prioritizing the street projects to be paid for by Renew Atlanta infrastructure bond and transportation special-purpose local-option sales tax (TSPLOST) funds, but still believes there is room for improvement.
“I think it’s a good project list,” she said. “They have lot of things in there that we believe should be prioritized. A lot of them involved Howell Mill. But I think overall they did a pretty good job.”
Smith spoke in an interview after the second and final Buckhead meeting March 4 regarding how the city should prioritize and rebaseline a total of about 800 road and infrastructure projects to address a backlog of needed repairs. It was one of eight meetings overall in January, February and early March (two in each of Atlanta’s four quadrants), with the last one taking place March 7 at Grady High School in Midtown.
In 2015 and 2016, Atlanta voters approved the $252 million Renew Atlanta infrastructure bond and the TSPLOST (which was to provide $358 million over five years), respectively. The two funding mechanisms were expected to provide more than $900 million, through both funding mechanisms plus some added state, federal or community improvement district funds tied to certain projects, for a total of about 800 road and infrastructure projects to address a backlog of needed repairs.
But late last year, following an audit of the two programs, it was determined there’s a funding shortfall of more than $400 million, leaving the city with only $540 million, so some projects will have to be cut or put on hold until another funding source is found.
One reason for the shortfall is an increase in construction costs of 20 to 30 percent since 2015 and 2016, said Michele Wynn, interim general manager for the city’s Renew Atlanta program. Another reason is the TSPLOST funding comes from a four-tenths-of-a-penny tax, and the city had hoped to get at least another tenth of a cent approved by voters but it was never approved by the Legislature, which is required to be placed on an election ballot.
During the second Sutton meeting, as he did in the first one, Joshua Williams, the city’s deputy chief operating officer, apologized on behalf of the city for not keeping the promise to have more than $900 million for the previously approved projects. About 40 residents attended the second meeting, down from about 200 in the first one. At both meetings, city officials talked to the entire group about the projects and the issue of culling down the list before splitting it up into breakout sessions of about a dozen individuals each.
Updated project lists
At the first meeting’s breakout sessions, residents were asked to prioritize the projects they felt were most important, and many said they didn’t have enough information from the city to make an informed decision on that issue. At the second meeting’s breakout sessions, city staff gave each attendee a packet of info listing which projects were fully funded, including those completed or under construction; which ones were design-only funded and which ones were deprioritized. Residents gave their opinion on which projects should be moved from one of those three lists to another, especially on which ones should be moved off the deprioritized list.
Before the breakout sessions, Michele Wynn, interim general manager for the city’s Renew Atlanta program, told the whole group that since the city’s first four meetings, over 100 written questions that were asked by residents and answered by city staff were posted on the Renew Atlanta/TSPLOST website. Also, more than 1,500 residents answered prioritization questions about the projects in a survey on that website.
“Three scenarios are Complete Streets, fundamental investments and max-leveraged funding. … All of these were graded against the Atlanta Transportation Plan, which (stresses) safety, equity and mobility,” Wynn said of the process the city used to determine how to prioritize the projects, which included input from residents and Atlanta staff.
Safety was an overwhelmingly important factor stressed by residents in their surveys, she said. Complete Streets was the most popular plan with 75 percent of the vote, followed by 17 percent for foundational investments and 8 percent for max-leveraged funding.
According to information presented both at the meeting and on the Renew Atlanta/TSPLOST website, residents at the first Buckhead meeting prioritized “focus on safety, mobility and improving quality of life concerns; strong desire for more projects in the northwest portion of the city; desire more information to make an informed preference choice; feels that current project list is outdated and doesn’t fit emerging community issues and increasing traffic is a major concern.”
According to a preliminary city staff recommendations, the city chose more than 26 miles of Complete Streets, over 10 miles of multiuse trails, more than 135 miles of resurfaced roads, over 45 miles of traffic communication corridors and more than 330 signalized intersection improvement projects.
“We tweaked to include some additional resurfacing and additional roadway improvements,” Wynn said. The tweaking on Complete Streets lowered the cost from $81.7 million to $80.2 million, she said. The extra $1.5 million will go to resurfacing and roadway improvement projects.
“It has $128 million in potential leveraged funding,” Wynn said, adding Buckhead projects on the Complete Streets list include resurfacing both Old Ivy Road, which is expected to start in two to three weeks, and West Wieuca Road, which is scheduled for this fall.
During the second meeting’s second breakout session, city staff members walked residents through the 13 different types of projects and how each individual project was prioritized and why.
One man asked, “What happened to neighborhood greenways?” He was referring to all 16 greenways that were originally to be constructed with Renew Atlanta/TSPLOST funds but have been deprioritized because, according to the city document on the projects, they provide “limited safety improvements compared to other project categories.”
“They were never specifically scoped,” said Jennie Agerton, an environmental specialist with Renew Atlanta. “None were designed or under construction. When we looked at places to get cut, those got cut.”
Many residents used the breakout session to complain about Atlanta’s potholes and other unsafe road conditions.
“You drive through Sandy Springs and you see all these smooth roads. But you come into Atlanta and bump, bump, bump, bump,” said John Selvage, who said he has lived on Dellwood Road since 1996 and doesn’t recall the street ever being repaved in that time.
His wife, Fay Selvage, said Beverly Road, which is on the deprioritized list, is “full of potholes.”
“It’s a terrible road. … I travel down Beverly Road quite often and it’s frightening,” she said.
Clark Dumas, the Underwood Hills Neighborhood Association’s traffic committee co-chair, said he likes some aspects of the Underwood Hills-area projects on the fully funded or design-only funded lists, but was disappointed some other projects were listed as deprioritized.
“I’m on board with Howell Mill (being on the Complete Streets’ fully funded list), but they carved out a bunch of (smaller) projects in the Howell Mill corridor basically from Marietta Street to Collier Road,” he said. “Number one, the lights that aren’t being funded, the traffic signals, are in school zones (such as the one at Huff Road). One of them is in the busiest section of Howell Mill, (the intersection at) Howell Mill and Collier (Road), which is a huge funnel for the folks coming out of Buckhead and Peachtree Hills or Peachtree Battle. ...
“(Also), 14th Street is a mess. The road is almost like a dirt road, there are so many potholes.”
Residents also weighed in on traffic in their neighborhoods and were disappointed to see some projects that were supposed to be funded by Renew Atlanta/TSPLOST will no longer be due to the shortfall.
“I live 1.7 miles from the grocery store, Publix (on Howell Mill). It takes me 55 minutes to get there (due to traffic) and seven minutes to get home,” said a woman who declined to identify herself when asked by the Neighbor after the meeting.
Smith had a similar complaint when asked what she believes the solution to Howell Mill traffic is.
“The big problem I have is I live six tenths of a mile from Arden Road, and there are times when we can’t go that way, so we have to go (on) back roads,” she said. “We go north and drive around. So I think a lot of it is just traffic light signalization. There are a lot of MARTA bus stops. The bus stop at McDonald’s at that Collier Road intersection backs up all the cars trying to get through that light because they can’t go around (the buses).”
Smith also said she’s happy to see both Howell Mill and Collier, which is on the fully funded resurfacing list, being fixed.
“(That) intersection ... is just full of potholes. It’s hard to navigate,” she said. “We also told (a city staff member) that Howell Mill between West Wesley and Moores Mill has all these patches. … Figuring out a way to move the cars efficiently is important.”
The final project list is expected to be submitted later this month and could be voted on by the city council in late March or April.
For more information, visit renewatlantabond.com.