All types of public officials — representing three cities and part of Fulton County along with state transportation and federal agriculture leaders — met Monday to talk about the present and future of infrastructure in metro Atlanta.
The conversations included how technology can fix problems faster than traditional building methods and how even small cities deal with infrastructure emergencies.
The state’s largest groups representing cities and counties, the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, hosted the event at City Springs, the $229 million arts-and-government complex recently built by Sandy Springs.
Almost all who spoke acknowledged that infrastructure will be key to handling a growing population. Infrastructure challenges worry officials not only in core metro area but places like Forsyth County, where the Atlanta Regional Commission predicts the population will double by 2040.
“It also plays a pivotal role in driving Georgia’s economy,” said Mike Dover, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation.
He said infrastructure improves the quality of residents’ lives, as seen with the express lanes along I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties. Since the lanes were opened in September, drivers in the general purpose lanes have traveled 30% faster.
But signaling a change in the way infrastructure works, officials talked as much about sensors and wires as they did concrete and steel.
“You can’t build your way out of this,” said Rusty Paul, mayor of Sandy Springs.
When it was time for the city to do something about its grueling traffic, Paul said their reaction was to think smarter instead of widening lanes. The city installed sensors in the roads that tell software where vehicles are jammed up, and the software adjusts traffic lights to improve flow.
The city employs two people to stare at 18 screens with live feeds of traffic and charts so they can adjust manually if needed.
Vanessa Fleisch, mayor of Peachtree City, gave the public officials a sense of their nightmare scenario: Her city of 35,000 residents was faced with an infrastructure problem that had to be taken care of or else it could decrease property values. There were cracks in the spillway holding in a 270-acre lake at the center of the city.
Fleisch said it took four years and a substantial budget commitment to make the repairs.
Sometimes it isn’t an emergency fix, but a simmering mess like DeKalb County’s water and sewer system. DeKalb’s infrastructure head Ted Rhinehart said the county has water main breaks daily but plans to spend $1.165 billion on the system from now until 2023.
He said that level of spending leaves other needs neglected. Some 300 miles of road, a sixth of DeKalb’s total roads, have been rated as “poor and needing immediate work.”
“We’re doing constant Band-Aids,” Rhinehart said.
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