Sherry B. Williams, like many Atlanta residents asked to weigh in on the city’s funding shortfall for its Renew Atlanta bond and TSPLOST projects, said she doesn’t have enough information to make an informed decision on which projects should be prioritized.
“(There’s) not enough info,” said Williams, policy coordinator for Georgia Stand-Up, a group of organizations advocating for economic justice and smart-growth strategies, including transit equity. “It’s like starting a class and then having to take a test on the first day. The next TSPLOST will be voted down if you don’t do anything with this one.”
Another resident said, “It’s hard to (make a decision). The whole thing is a red herring. It’s a grand allocation of resources on a grand basis.”
They were two of the dozens of residents to sound off on the issue at the city’s re-baselining and reprioritizing meeting Thursday night at Sutton Middle School in Buckhead, during breakout sessions that followed introductory and overview presentations to the entire group of about 200. It was one of four meetings (one in each of the city’s four quadrants) this week, with another set of four scheduled for late February.
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.
Wynn said projects already under construction will be completed and projects in the design phase will finish that phase but may not get the go-ahead for construction.
Post 2 at-large Atlanta City Councilman Matt Westmoreland apologized on behalf of the city for not keeping the promise to have more than $900 million for the previously approved projects. Joshua Williams, the city’s deputy chief operating officer, also apologized for the same thing during the breakout session a Neighbor reporter attended, adding he knows many residents don’t trust the city after previous Mayor Kasim Reed and his administration is under a corruption investigation for allegedly inappropriately spending millions of city funds.
Residents at the breakout session also said some of the projects on the list don’t address some of the traffic problems that have become more critical in the years since they were approved. So maybe some new projects should be added as the city reprioritizes them, they added.
“The big complaint we get is about east-west traffic (on West Paces Ferry Road) from people going to and from Cobb County into and through Buckhead. In four or five years, that component of it has gotten so much worse,” said Brinkley Dickerson, the Atlanta Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) A board chair.
But Jacob Tzegaegbe, the city’s senior transportation policy advisor, who led one of the breakout sessions, said new projects can’t be added to the list but could be placed on a list of projects to be completed when more funding resources are available.
Sherry Williams said a council work session document from an audit report on the city’s Renew Atlanta and/or TSPLOST projects stated there were 23 projects dropped but 61 added. Williams said she hoped the report would be added to the documents the city has already included online with its Renew Atlanta/TSPLOST website. In an interview after the meeting, she said she attended another Renew Atlanta/TSPLOST meeting at the C.T. Martin Recreation Center the previous night.
Sherry Williams also said Georgia Stand-Up asked city transportation leaders and staff to provide the work session document at the meetings but they refused to, and that the organization asked the city to promote these meetings at Atlanta’s NPUs and libraries to get the word out, since some may not go online to get more info, but they didn’t.
During the breakout sessions, residents were asked to look at three different scenarios for reprioritizing the projects, with each having a primary focus, and say which one they preferred. The first prioritizes Complete Streets, the second foundational investments and the third maximum leveraged funding. The city employees leading the breakout sessions said they would collect all the data and comments provided by residents at each meeting and post it online.
Wynn said city transportation leaders will provide an update to the council’s transportation committee Feb. 13, and, following the second set of meetings (the last one at Sutton is Feb. 28 from 6:30 to 8 p.m.), the final project list is expected to be submitted in March.
Until then, the city is encouraging residents to visit renewatlantabond.com and fill out the survey to make their voice heard. To view the three scenarios, visit http://bit.ly/2CKCpg5 and scroll down to the eighth page.