Atlanta sidewalks: City Hall’s best thinkers are asked to find funding solutionsSidewalks along Bellemeade Road, north of Atlantic Station, may not be completely broken but could be impassable to some pedestrians and wheelchair-bound individuals. Credit: David Pendered
By David Pendered
This time is to be different, this latest effort to fix broken Atlanta sidewalks and to install new ones. This time, the most innovative thinkers in the mayor’s cabinet are to devise an ongoing source of funding to pay for fixing and installing sidewalks.
One main challenge is to avoid dumping the cost on homeowners, according to the sponsor of the legislation approved unanimously Sept. 8 by the Atlanta City Council.
“City of Atlanta homeowners already pay a disproportionate burden for services – sidewalks, roads, and beyond,” said Atlanta City Councilmember Amir Farokhi, whose District 2 includes such walkable neighborhoods as Midtown, Old Fourth Ward and Little Five Points.
The research project has the support of Sally Flocks, the founder of the pedestrian group PEDS who’s been involved in the drafting of legislation to repair and expand Atlanta’s sidewalks for the past two decades.
“I’m really excited to see things moving forward,” Flocks said. “When you have hundreds of millions of dollars in backlog, which is in addition to routine maintenance, you do need a special way to pay for it.”
The total cost of the sidewalk program is in the range of $800 million, Farokhi said, charactering the sum as, “not uncommon for big cities.”
Farokhi’s legislation calls for a funding method to be devised by the city’s nascent Department of Transportation, and the proven Office of Innovation Delivery and Performance. They are to report final recommendations, or a progress report, to the council within six months.
Specifically, the Atlanta City Council has requested the two departments to:
- “collaborate in the preparation of a series sustainable and responsible funding proposals that address the City’s sidewalk repair backlog as well as needs for new sidewalk construction.”
The ATLDOT, established in 2019, was the product of a study commissioned in 2017 by the Atlanta City Council. The new department is intended to consolidate functions that had been handled by city departments including public works and planning.
The Office of Innovation Delivery and Performance is one of those city entities that operates largely out of the public limelight. Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government heaped praise on the staff in a report issued in 2017.
Harvard’s report cited the effectiveness of the office in developing cost-cutting recommendations that were included in the city’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Waste & Efficiency in Government. The commission’s recommendations included the sale of non-core city assets, such as Underground Atlanta, and the consolidation of employee health plans.
The Harvard report observed:
- “The Office of Innovation and Performance works on special projects that advance key priorities of the mayor, typically in partnership with city operational departments, deploying their fresh perspective and analytical skills to solve important public problems.”
The legislation adopted calls for the two departments to deliver their proposal, or an update on their progress, in six months to the council’s Transportation Committee. The city does have an inventory of sidewalk needs, which was developed in response to legislation Farokhi previously introduced and the council enacted.
“Now that we know what the cost is to repair and extend sidewalks in the city, let’s create a plan to fund that,” Farokhi said. “It’s likely to be a multi-year plan. Let’s create a prioritization model for sidewalk projects that emphasizes equity in areas of highest need; a funding schedule to eliminate the repair backlog; and let’s look at an array of funding streams to fund it.”
The legislation acknowledges the city’s current funding sources for sidewalks issues – including the use of sales tax revenues. The funding sources include:
- An incremental percentage of the city’s general fund. The council last week approved a $3 million continuation of sidewalk repairs;
- About 4.5 percent of the Renew Atlanta bond is allocated for sidewalks repairs and measures related to ADA compliance;
- About $69 million for sidewalks is to be provided from the sales tax voters approved for transportation improvements;
- ATLDOT funds, when the money is identified and available.