Atlanta’s pothole and paving challenges cost taxpayers money; full relief unlikely

Atlanta tries to reduce use of metal plates

Atlanta has toughened the oversight of utilities and developers who rip up streets to get at water lines or electrical cable. The city wants to reduce the number of metal plates in roadways, which can damage automobiles and cost taxpayers money to pay for damages.

The plates are generally put in the roads by utilities such as Georgia Power, Atlanta Gas Light and Atlanta’s own Department of Watershed Management to cover “utility cuts.”

Now, utilities must inform the city if they plan to use the metal plates. Before that change about two years ago, the city had no way to track how many plates were in its roads. There are currently between 100 and 120 on Atlanta’s streets.

If the plates are not removed five days after the utility repair is completed, the city’s Department of Public Works can issue a stop-work order or hold up other projects. However, permits may be renewed to allow metal plates to remain for more than 30 days.

“We are charged with the responsibility of protecting the right-of-way,” said Richard Mendoza, Atlanta’s public works commissioner. “Because if we don’t, who ends up carrying the rest of the bill? It’s the rest of the taxpayers.”

Cobb County, meanwhile, discourages any use of metal plates, said Bill Shelton, manager of the county’s road maintenance division.

“Most people who work in Cobb don’t leave the plates in the road for long, because our inspectors will be on top of them,” Shelton said. “We try to rush them up and get them out of the road.”

Atlanta should be doing five times the amount of current street paving just to keep up with the usual wear and tear, but that would take millions more dollars, said Richard Mendoza, Atlanta’s public works commissioner.

He said city crews and contractors pave about 18 miles of the city’s roughly 1,700 miles of road per year. Ideally, the city would repave, seal or micro-surface 85 miles every year.

According to a major report published by Mendoza’s department last year, Atlanta needs about $38 million a year for street resurfacing — nearly ten times its current funding — to meet its true road-maintenance needs.

The city’s not likely to get anywhere near that figure. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s pothole and paving backlogs are challenging for the city’s finances and frustrating for hundreds of thousands of in-town residents and suburban commuters.

Current funding is “still a pretty bare-bones budget for a city of our size,” Mendoza told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’re at a critical point now where we need to start developing some concrete initiatives and capabilities to address” preventive maintenance.

Atlanta relies heavily on grants from the state to repair its streets, and is pushing for more cash. But in the meantime, the plan is to focus on preventive maintenance including sealing cracks and micro-surfacing to prolong the life of the city’s roads.

Other jurisdictions have more money to maintain their roads. Cobb County, which maintains 2,500 miles of roadway, is on an aggressive $18 million paving schedule this year. Gwinnett, with 2,750 miles of county-maintained roadways, expects to pull in more than $12 million next year from sales taxes and grants to pay for resurfacing, and it spends about $250,000 annually to fill potholes, patch roads and repair shoulders.

In Cobb County, paving the most rutted roads has helped reduce complaints about potholes by one-fifth, said Bill Shelton, manager of the county’s road maintenance division. Meanwhile, crews have repaired about 1,630 potholes this year.

“People want to ride on a smooth road,” Shelton said. “That’s a priority for us. People don’t want their front ends knocked out of alignment.”

In Atlanta, pockmarked roads are a serious pocketbook issue. Potholes, street defects and metal plates covering “utility cuts” in Atlanta’s roadways cost the city more than $270,000 in 380 legal settlements over the past five years, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News through an open-records request.

Christian Stevens of Canton puts up to 1,500 miles on his Honda Accord every week as a salesman in the dermatopathology sector, which focuses on diagnoses of skin diseases. Compared to the rest of his Southeast territory, Atlanta’s rough roads stand out.

“It’s much, much rougher inside the city limits,” Stevens said. “But I can’t kick the city that bad without understanding their situation. Their roads are always being used. They could pave them quarterly and still have problems.”

Atlanta fields an average of 80 to 90 complaint calls about potholes per month. In the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years, the Department of Public Works completed pothole repairs within 72 hours in about 75 percent of cases, according to city budget documents. That fell well short of the city’s goal.

But in the 2012 fiscal year, 91 percent of pothole work orders were completed within three days, exceeding the goal of 90 percent.

The city has had some success in boosting the assistance it receives from the state for road repair. The gas-tax funds for street resurfacing are paid to Georgia Department of Transportation contractors. Atlanta's portion of funding rose from $2.2 million in 2010 to $3 million last year, in a one-time increase to allow for the resurfacing of West Paces Ferry Road.

The city also contributes about $1 million in labor and materials annually to prepare streets for resurfacing.

The combined $4 million is not nearly enough, said Yolanda Adrean, who represents northwest Atlanta on the City Council. Adrean sent the AJC pictures of metal plates covering a ripped-up stretch of road in her district.

“It’s not like we don’t know what the problem is,” she said. “The problem is a lack of funding.”

Under a Dec. 31 deadline, Atlanta is preparing its request for funds from the state Legislature, along with a detailed list of roads that need to be repaired. City officials hope to get more money from the local allotment of the gas tax.

“I expect us to keep fighting for more money,” Mendoza said. “We always think it should be higher. Of course, we’re competing against the rest of the state.”

Atlanta is also trying new approaches.

Last year, the city added two pothole patch trucks, bringing its total to four. Now, one of the crews canvasses the city to find and repair potholes before they are the subject of complaints, rather than after.

“We instituted a change,” Mendoza said. “Historically, we’ve only been reactive.”