Audit shows why Atlanta streets are so bad

Atlanta’s reputation as having some of the worst surface streets in the South was confirmed by a stinging internal audit that shows that the city has done little to monitor private utility companies and contractors who routinely rip up the streets.

Sloppy paperwork and a lack of oversight by the city department responsible for roads have been blamed for a proliferation of metal plates on Atlanta streets and costly legal claims the city has paid for damage to cars.

In a 32-page report released last week, auditors found the Department of Public Works, the division in charge of permitting and inspecting city road work, had no way of tracking the work or companies responsible for making repairs.

Drivers already know too well the jarring patchwork covering the city’s streets.

Renee Coleman said it becomes more difficult each day to drive through Buckhead’s Paces Ferry Road.

“Every morning as I drove by Usher’s house and the Governor’s Mansion, I wondered why is this street sooooooo raggedy?” said Coleman. “I find myself swerving into the opposite lane to avoid the sloppy patchwork, potholes and metal plates, which put me in harm’s way.”

In 2010, the city paid out $218,000 worth of claims to 193 drivers who were involved in accidents or whose cars were damaged because of metal plates.

The metal plates are supposed to be removed within five days, but on many occasions, the audit found, they stayed there for weeks and even months, degrading the streets and damaging cars.

City auditor Leslie Ward said that aside from spotty inspections of utility company and private contracting work, the department had no way of identifying which companies were digging into the streets and leaving heavy metal plates in their wake.

“There is no real program here, because we are not enforcing our own requirements,” Ward said Friday. “The city has no idea what the utility companies are doing to the streets, because we have nothing to tell us what they are doing.”

Another problem is that the city doesn’t ask for permits or inspect the work done by the city’s own water department, which accounts for a bulk of the city’s street cuts. A street cut occurs whenever a utility or other company digs into a street for things such as routine maintenance, system upgrades or repairs.

Public Works Commissioner Richard Mendoza, who started in July 2010, said he has already started acting on the findings. The audit gathered data starting in August 2010.

He said that the first step will be to create a centralized database where the work of all inspectors will be stored and analyzed. Mendoza said that the work and policies were “fragmented,” but he has put in place measures to have an “updated, clarified and all-encompassing” process.

“Our record-keeping was inconsistent. The method varied from inspector to inspector, and the software was inadequate to maintain and contain data,” Mendoza said.

He added that inspectors will now focus only on inspections and nothing else, which he said will cut down on street cuts that have not been properly repaired and decrease the financial claims against the city.

“I don’t want to pay any claims,” Mendoza said. “We want to be able to maintain records and document our work. We want to assure the integrity of our right of ways, but we also want to protect public safety as a whole.”

For now, instead of smooth, paved streets, Atlanta’s streets are often a mosaic of asphalt, metal plates and mismatched patches, done by either the utilities companies or the city in an effort to salvage the right of way.

“A lot of the potholes in the city are [improperly repaired] street cuts,” said Ward.

Lynn Wallace, a spokeswoman for Georgia Power, said the company has tried to work closely with the city, as well as organizations such as PEDS, a pedestrian advocacy group, to identify and fix problems. On Monday, she said there are currently no areas in metro Atlanta where Georgia Power has had to put down plates.

“When we do any type of utility work, we do our best to restore it to its original condition,” said Wallace, adding that her company has a person whose specific job is to drive around spotting trouble.

Tami Gerke, a spokeswoman for Atlanta Gas Light, said her company also tries to work closely with the city, adding, “We are obligated to make repairs in accordance with city regulations.”

In Atlanta, like other major cities, utility companies — cable, telecommunications, power and gas — pay franchise fees to be able to do regular work beneath the city’s streets. Developers and contractors are granted work permits. All are supposed to restore the streets to their original conditions, or close to it.

In one of the most egregious acts, Ward said auditors identified 26 random street cuts on 10 streets. Nobody in the Department of Public Works could verify when the cuts were made, or by whom. She said in another instance, she and her staff found 22 plates on streets near City Hall, and none of them had an identifiable marker on them to say to whom they belonged.

“We have to become involved,” Mendoza acknowledged. “We have to manage that work and put in place policies for restoring the streets back to the condition it was before the excavation.”

Drivers can’t help but notice.

“Oh my God. Cascade Road near The Beautiful,” said Kimberly Binns. “It seems like there’s half a mile of metal plates on the street.”

The last time the city checked — in 2008 — a study found that nearly half of its 1,705 miles of streets were in disrepair and needed repaving. Of that, almost 500 miles had been ruled unsatisfactory before 2003. Conditions have worsened since.

Mendoza said that each of seven inspectors are doing between “10 and 30” inspections daily.

And this is all in the wake of one of Atlanta’s most successful campaign slogans and promises, Shirley Franklin’s “Pothole Posse,” where she — despite coming into office in 2002 as mayor facing a huge deficit and a crumbling sewer system — promised that every pothole would be fixed within 72 hours of it being identified.

“We had 3,000 plates and 6,000 potholes in the city, so it was important to me because it was important to everyday folks,” Franklin said. “When I was running for mayor, one of the key issues that senior citizens raised were the streets were a mess. They just believed that the city ought to be able to do better when it came to street maintenance.”