The bridge would run above and across Northside Drive near the new Falcons stadium.

Atlanta disputes cost of Northside Drive bridge

The City of Atlanta’s public works department appears to have spent millions above what lawmakers authorized to build a glitzy pedestrian bridge over Northside Drive in time for Super Bowl 53, according to figures on the city’s Open Checkbook website.

Although the mayor’s office disputed the figures, the city’s auditor confirmed Wednesday that at least one $2 million payment appeared to be unauthorized.

The bridge had been sold to the City Council as a way to connect the Vine City community with downtown for events just like Sunday’s Super Bowl at Mercedes Benz Stadium. But chain link fences now block the entrance.

The Open Checkbook website has been touted by city officials as a way to restore public trust with transparency on how taxpayer money is spent. But in this instance it only made the city’s finances more opaque.

The mayor’s office didn’t help clear up the situation on Wednesday. For nearly a day, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms declined to confirm reports that the bridge would actually be closed to the public for the big game.

Bottoms office then released a statement Wednesday afternoon after the AJC had published a story on ajc.com about the mayor’s silence.

“The FBI and NFL in consultation with other security partners made the determination to close the bridge to the public ahead of the event,” the statement said. It added the the public would be able to use it on Sunday, but only to exit the stadium after the game.

BRIDGE TO NOWHERE? Access to the new Northside Drive pedestrian bridge is blocked in this Jan. 30, 2019, photo. City officials say security concerns ahead of Super Bowl LIII prompted the closure.
Photo: HANDOUT/STEPHEN DEERE

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this week identified what seemed to be nearly $4 million in unauthorized payments to the contractor who built the bridge. The AJC asked City Auditor Amanda Noble to examine the figures obtained from Open Checkbook.

Noble said one $2 million purchase order listed an incorrect justification for the expense.

“On the surface of it, [the authorization is] just not there,” Noble said.

Mike Williams, CEO of the Georgia Bridge and Concrete LLC, insisted his company hadn’t been paid more than the amount approved by council.

“We are not being paid a penny more than the original contract,” Williams said.

LEARN MORE: CITY OF ATLANTA DOCUMENTS

Noble was still reviewing the other payments and said she had plans to audit the construction expenses for the bridge.

The city council had approved $23.2 million for the bridge with votes in 2016 and 2018. The city’s payments for the bridge on Open Checkbook show payments of more than $27 million as of June.

A spokesman for the mayor in a statement Wednesday said “construction retainage” fees that were not paid were included in the data. The statement did not give a definition for the retainage fees, why someone had entered them on the site or how to distinguish between actual payments and the false fees.

Bottoms announced Open Checkbook in April as a federal corruption investigation into the administration of former Mayor Kasim Reed was gathering steam.

‘A fake debate’

The Northside Drive pedestrian bridge has been controversial from its inception. Reed  claimed it was what the community had wanted. But many residents and other officials said it was hard to see how the impoverished, historically African-American community of Vine City would benefit from a bridge that leads directly to Mercedes Benz Stadium.

After the council approved the project in 2016, an AJC investigation revealed that documents indicated the bridge was being built for the stadium.

Last year, the city council approved $10 million to complete the bridge on the premise that it needed to open in time for the Super Bowl.

At a meeting of the City Council’s Finance Executive Committee on Wednesday, Councilwoman Jennifer Ide said the closing down the bridge for the Super Bowl irked her.

“When this bridge was passed, it was talked about as pedestrians having a safe way to cross Northside Drive,” Ide said. “I find it offensive that we are closing it at the request of the NFL when we had this fake debate about whether it was for the stadium or not.”

January 29, 2019 Atlanta - Picture shows Northside Drive pedestrian bridge outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Tuesday, January 29, 2019. In March, the Atlanta City Council grudgingly approved an additional $10 million to complete the Northside Drive pedestrian bridge in time for Super Bowl 53. They were told that the project's total cost would not exceed $23.2 million and that it was needed to connect residents in the Vine City community to downtown and the stadium. It turns out that the bridge is closed to the public for the big game and that the city actually spent more than $27 million on the project. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong suggested that the bridge be closed all together.

“I was thinking nobody should use the bridge,” Archibong said. “Has that been considered? If it’s a security risk, just don’t open it.”

The council members also said they wanted to know the projects’ final cost. They cited reports on the $27 million.

“I will just say that we are actively investigating that claim right now,” City Controller John Gaffney told the committee. “Preliminary indications are that that is not he case.”

But neither Gaffney, nor anyone else from the administration, provided the real number.

In an interview, Councilman Howard Shook said there should be serious consequences if there was significant spending without council approval.

“I, for one, will definitely be interested in exploring retribution,” Shook said. He did not elaborate.

THE STORY SO FAR

December 2016  — AJC reports that new pedestrian bridge over Northside Drive could cost twice what the city initially indicated. The story also reveals that the documents show that the bridge was built for stadium not public.

March 2018  — AJC reports that administraiton is seeking additional $12 million to build bridge, despite assurances that total cost was $13 million. The administration says the project needs to be ready for Super Bowl 53. 

January 2019 — AJC reports that bridge will be closed for the Super Bowl, and that city figures show that unauthorized funds were used to build it. 

ORIGINAL DOCUMENT: See the Nov. 2015 bridge study -- “A Path to Connectivity”

 

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