Atlanta races ahead of consultant's advice in proposed Transportation Department

By David Pendered

Atlanta’s proposal to create a freestanding Department of Transportation – reporting exclusively to the mayor – was part of the long-term plan suggested by the city’s management consultant, but only after a slow transition to a new department. The Atlanta City Council begins its deliberations on April 22.

potholes

The task of pothole repair, and all aspects of Atlanta’s mobility program, would come under a proposed Transportation Department that would report exclusively to the mayor. Credit: David Pendered

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and a majority of the Atlanta City Council have endorsed the idea of a stand-alone Transportation Department.

They are skipping several interim measures the consultant suggested in a report issued last year – including a transition period of up to three years to evaluate if a new department, and its trappings, is even necessary. Tweaks to the existing governance structure might achieve the same results, the consultant observed.

The pending legislation calls for the mayor to wield exclusive control over the new department. The department is to be formed within a year. Here are a few details in the proposal:

  • The transportation commissioner “shall report directly to the mayor.” This structure seems to bypass the chief operating officer. Atlanta’s COO oversees all but two of the city’s other department heads, law and finance – and those two have dual reports to the mayor and council.
  • The department’s budget evidently would include the $46 million for the existing Office of Transportation, plus funds associated with Renew Atlanta, and the mobility planning services now performed by the Department of Planning, according to the consultant’s report, It noted the $46 million was as adopted for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2018.
  • The proposed Transportation Department is to be created fairly soon. A provision calls for the city’s budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 to amended to provide for the new department. The city’s budget policy calls for the mayor to finish the tentative FY 2020 budget in April and the council to adopt a budget by June 30.
  • The Transportation Department is to be created after the council approves and the mayor signs the legislation, or it is otherwise enacted. Before the council votes, two council committees are to consider the legislation – a process that could take a few months.

Atlanta’s transportation duties are now shared by several departments that report to the city’s COO. Credit: WSP/Atlanta

The management consultant did not call for the transportation commissioner to report directly to the mayor. A proposed organization chart in the consultant’s report tops out at the commissioner. It doesn’t indicate the office to which the commissioner reports.

The management report was completed by the Atlanta office of WSP. The report, dated March 5, 2018 hasn’t gained much traction in the discussion over the type of governmental structure that could best ensure the city’s streets and sidewalks are well planned, well built and well maintained.

WSP may not be a familiar name in the region. An affiliate is more familiar to some in metro Atlanta. WSP purchased in 2014 Parsons Brinckerhoff, an engineering consulting firm. PB is a longtime consultant to MARTA and contributed to the MARTA Guide Specifications Manual. WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff now is working on a MARTA contract to upgrade the ventilation equipment in 16 tunnels, according to a report by railwayage.com.

WSP’s report did recommend the creation of a “stand-alone transportation-focused department, led by a new commissioner hired from a national search.” In regards to timing:

  • “Have the restructuring plan approved by the City Council following a substantial public engagement process before adoption.”
Transportation Department, consultant org chart

Atlanta’s proposed Transportation Department would report to the city’s COO under the recommendation of the city’s management consultant. Credit: WSP/Atlanta

The rationale for a multi-year transition states:

  • “However, restructuring takes time, years often, and should involve a transition period and development of a change management plan and strategies that allow for communication with and feedback from impacted staff and stakeholders, formulation and approval of a reorganization plan, legislation, and a strategic plan for the new agency, hiring of the new Commissioner and staff, and creation of accounts and budget for the new agency.
  • “This should follow the best practice that restructuring plans are likely to succeed if they are approved by a commission or City Council and follow a substantial public engagement process before adoption.”

Such a transition period is not contemplated in the pending legislation. The proposal creates the department, enumerates its responsibilities, and authorizes the city’s chief financial officer to, “amend the Fiscal Year 2020 budget to create an appropriate fund, account and center number and to allocate appropriate funding for the creation of the Department of Transportation.”

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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