Torpy at Large: Atlanta in a fix amid cash shortage for street repairs

Welcome to the “Re-Baselining Process” for Renew Atlanta’s massive infrastructure rebuilding program. It comes complete with deteriorating streets, angry citizens, apologetic public officials, and money spent on projects not on the wish list or dissipated away into “soft costs.”

“Re-baselining” is government-speak for diminished expectations.

The problem is classic supply and demand; the city just can’t deliver what people were led to believe they would get.

Currently Atlanta has far more than $1 billion (and rapidly rising) in infrastructure needs but has less than half that in funding to chip away at those projects. In 2015, the city created a $250 million Renew Atlanta fund and the following year voters passed a 4 cents per $10 sales tax to raise perhaps $300 million over five years ending in 2022.

Two weeks ago, Deputy Chief Operating Officer Josh Williams laid out the bitter news for City Council members: “We recognize that every project approved in 2015 and 2016 will not be able to be completed at this time. I apologize to you and to the general public for promises made that cannot be fulfilled under this program.

“Tough decisions have to be made to course-correct the program,” he said, adding that the decision process is more “art than science.”

Last month, Williams and other city reps took their Re-Baselining Show on the road to four different city quadrants. The show was not a hit.

Williams then created a chart summing up the public’s wants.

Southwest: “Major concerns with lack of transparency. Strong desire for more projects in the southwest portion of the city.”

Northwest: “Focus on safety, mobility, and improving quality of life concerns. Strong desire for more projects in the northwest portion of the city.”

And so on.

Everyone wants their chunk of the asphalt pie. It’s human nature, also a zero-sum game. If southwest Atlanta gets a big slice, some in northeast Atlanta feel slighted. And vice versa.

It’s a delicate balancing act in a city that is divided racially, economically and, of course, geographically. And officials will soon have to determine who gets what and when.

Councilman Andre Dickens, who serves citywide and heads the council’s transportation committee, knew going in that projects would have to be rolled out in a way to keep people happy — or more importantly, keep unhappiness to a minimum.

“We tried to do projects so people wouldn’t say, ‘They are winners and we are losers.’”

But this is politics. The first Renew project unveiled was a 2.2-mile "complete street" on Lynhurst Drive in southwest Atlanta. It cost $6.3 million for new sidewalks on both sides, fancy brick pavers and some 300 ornate pedestrian lights such that residents jokingly say "it's lit up like the circus."

At a ribbon cutting in November 2017, former Mayor Kasim Reed said, “Over the years, there was always the question, ‘When are all the benefits of the Renew Atlanta bonds coming to southwest Atlanta?’ “

Well, “Today!” was Reed’s answer to his own question. The fact that it was just days before the election, one where he supported fellow southwest sider (and now Mayor) Keisha Lance Bottoms was a point lost on few.

A couple of weeks later, the city released an audit that said the city wasn’t keeping track of the projects and noted that $1.4 million in work was performed in Guildford Forest, home to the old and new mayors, even though that work didn’t go before the board overseeing projects.

I spoke with City Council President Felicia Moore, who said residents are upset that money was used for projects not on the original lists, such as purchasing more land for Piedmont Park and building a bridge over Northside Drive by Mercedes Benz Stadium. Also, she said the Martin Luther King Jr. Natatorium "cost a lot more than originally contemplated."

Another audit on projects released in December 2018 said that more than $13 million of bond proceeds were spent on the $27 million bridge.

The audit also said, “Of the $250 million bond proceeds, soft costs were 24 percent of construction cost and design costs were 21 percent of construction costs through July 31, 2018. These ratios are high compared to program goals but should decrease as the program finishes.”

A mayoral spokesman said that $51.4 million has been spent on design and salaries and that $115 million has gone into actual construction. He added that "start-up costs" are more prevalent at the beginning than the end of a project.

Dickens, who voted against the extra money for the bridge, said, “It’s a contractor rich project. I’m not in favor of how they did it. They went with (hiring) contractors over using existing staff.”

So with the pool of cash diminishing and public interest increasing, the city is, once again, on the road asking residents what they want.

On Wednesday night, more than 200 residents gathered at the CT Martin Rec Center on the southwest side to let officials have it.

“We must let the city of Atlanta know it’s our turn,” Councilwoman Marci Overstreet told the gathering. “We’ve been left off the list for too long.”

Resident Russell McCray grabbed a mic and summed it up, saying, “We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.” He then added a crowd favorite: “Cascade Road, Cascade Road, Cascade Road.”

That key thoroughfare needs major work, including lighting, resurfacing and sidewalks. That project is currently being pushed back into the list because of its cost.

Williams, the city guy, said previous hearings let him know there’s “a strong preference for the complete streets,” which include new sidewalks, bike lanes and other expensive additions. The city has made such projects one of the key focuses of the remaining money.

Plenty of others had differing ideas. And the debate will continue around the city.