An infrastructure puzzle — Atlanta leaders keep working on solutions

By Maria Saporta

Last March, we learned that the City of Atlanta estimated that it had a $922 million backlog in fixing its infrastructure — its roads, its bridges and its sidewalks.

At the time there were numerous ways the city might be able to address that backlog.

First, there was the upcoming regional local option sales tax that if approved by voters would have generated about $9 million a year for the City of Atlanta to improve its streets and sidewalks.

But that tax failed on July 31 among the 10 counties in the region. It is worth noting that the tax passed decisively within the City of Atlanta.

Then there was the hope that the City of Atlanta would end up getting a greater share of the Fulton County sales taxes that are returned to the county’s cities. But the county and its 14 cities have not yet reached an agreement of how to distribute those revenues over the next 10 years.

Depending on the outcome of those two initiatives, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said last March that he was contemplating a bond package between $250 million and $750 million that would go toward reducing the city’s infrastructure backlog.

The hope was that by the end of the year (meaning now), the city would have a much better idea of how it would be able to address its existing infrastructure needs.

During an interview with a couple of reporters on Dec. 10 following the quarterly meeting with the Atlanta Committee for Progress, Reed said the city is taking its time deciding how to approach its infrastructure backlog.

“If we don’t do anything, the infrastructure backlog will be about $1 billion to $3 billion in 15 years,” Reed said. “We have been looking at everything.”

Asked about whether there might be a bond referendum, Reed said it was still on the table, but he added that the timing was “open-ended.”

Why? Reed is waiting to see what might happen in Washington, D.C.

“I believe in the next six to nine months, you will get an infrastructure bank deal, which I think will be able to provide funding at a much more attractive rate,” Reed said. “It would make sense to wait for the infrastructure bank.”

Reed said that he believes there is bi-partisan support for an infrastructure bank that could get a $50 billion appropriation that would help stimulate economic growth in communities across the country.

“I like our chances in participating in that,” Reed said. “To the extent I can move something to the other side of the ledger, I want to do that. I feel like our chances at the federal level are good.”

Reed also said that the City is still considering a bond package of between $250 million and $300 million — depending on how much more debt the city’s budget can absorb.

But Reed also is eyeing another possibility — Underground Atlanta.

“We pay off the debt on Underground — $8.1 million a year — in 36 months,” Reed said. “An $8 million bill goes away in 2016.”

There also is the possibility that the city could pay off the remaining $33 million debt it owes for Underground earlier than 2016. The city also is looking at ways to reduce the interest payments it has on existing debt, which could save the city between $1 million to $3 million a year.

The issue is “how do you cobble together $15 million to $20 million in cash (each year) just for infrastructure,” Reed said.

Assuming Reed is re-elected as mayor in 2013, he said his goal will be to reduce the city’s infrastructure $1 billion backlog by about a third by the time his successor takes office in January, 2018.

Meanwhile, for City of Atlanta residents, the value of investing in our infrastructure can not be underestimated.

In the past few months, we have seen the BeltLine trail open on the eastside, transforming the quality of life for people living in its surrounding communities.

Street and sidewalk improvements on Ponce de Leon Avenue between Piedmont Avenue and Peachtree Street are making the area much more pedestrian-friendly.

The transformation of North Avenue along the Georgia Tech campus has changed the perception of the street from a thoroughfare to a street welcoming to college students.

The improvements along Peachtree Road in Buckhead has turned what had been one of the most dangerous corridors for people on two feet and two wheels to an inviting street with wide sidewalks, bicycle paths, safer crosswalks and attractive landscaping.

These are not massive interchanges or megaprojects. Quite the contrary. These are human-scale projects that make Atlanta and its communities more attractive places to live, work, visit and enjoy.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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