City of Atlanta has opportunity to invest in sidewalks and bicycle paths

By Maria Saporta

Second column in a two-column series on the City of Atlanta’s transportation options 

It’s a given. The City of Atlanta will go to voters in November to propose an additional half-penny in taxes over the next 40 years for MARTA. That tax alone initially is expected to generate more than $50 million a year.

But the City of Atlanta also has the option to ask voters whether they want to approve another half penny for five years for general transportation projects. Over the next five years, that tax could generate a total of $280 million to $370 million.

So the question is whether Atlanta should go for the gusto – investing in its transportation infrastructure in an unprecedented fashion.

Ponce sidewalk

The City of Atlanta expanded and improved the sidewalk around the Ponce at Peachtree Street and Ponce de Leon Avenue (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Already City of Atlanta voters approved $250 million in bonds for infrastructure improvements with most of those funds going to roads and bridges. That was meant to make a dent in the City’s $900 million infrastructure backlog.

But imagine how much more accessible Atlanta would become if it improved its MARTA and streetcar network inside the city limits through the 40-year half-penny.

And then imagine if Atlanta also approved another half-penny sales tax for the next five years. How could we best invest those transportation dollars?

One thing to remember (and this also is important for the rest of Fulton County) – sales tax revenues are not restricted to just roads and bridges. They can be invested in non-capital transit investments as well as sidewalks, bicycle paths and multi-use trails.

Ultimately it will be up to the City of Atlanta – including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, the Atlanta City Council, city department heads – to decide to go for both the MARTA tax and the half-penny tax for general transportation.

Ponce sidewalks

The sidewalks on Ponce de Leon can be some of the most attractive and least desirable in the city. About a mile east of Peachtree, Ponce is not pedestrian-friendly (Photo by Maria Saporta)

City Councilman Alex Wan said it may be better to wait a year to go after the second half-penny for two reasons. Voters might be more prone to approve a tax if they both weren’t on the same ballot. Also, it would give the city administration more time to absorb and digest all the improvements designated in the infrastructure bond.

But others believe Atlanta voters will support alternative transportation investments in the city – a move that has given Atlanta a competitive edge when it comes to attracting millennials, empty nesters and companies seeking the talent drawn to city living.

Paul Morris, CEO of Atlanta BeltLine Inc., is hopeful the city will go for both the MARTA tax and the transportation tax. The five-year sales tax could help close the BeltLine multi-use trail loop. It could also improve pedestrian connections to the BeltLine.

But that sales tax also could dramatically make Atlanta far friendlier for pedestrians and cyclists. At the same time, we could make the City far more beautiful.

We could create wider sidewalks with trees providing a buffer between pedestrians and cars. We can create boulevards so that people can cross streets and have a protected island in the middle of the street. And we could improve our crosswalks with well-painted bars so that the space for pedestrians is much more visible to drivers.

Charles Allen Drive

Charles Allen Drive is a great example of how a boulevard with a median can make a street more beautiful and safer for pedestrians (Photo by Maria Saporta)

We also could use these funds to fix our broken sidewalks – once and for all. No longer would residents be responsible for having to fix the sidewalks in front of their homes. Sidewalks would be treated as a true right-of-way for the public.

We also can provide more routes for cyclists throughout the city – helping give Atlantans multiple options on how to get around.

And once we improve the walkability of our major streets with well-landscaped sidewalks, we will enhance the beauty of our city.

Tim Keane, commissioner of Atlanta’s Bureau of Planning and Community Development, has said the city has beautiful neighborhoods and communities. But he added that the connections in between leave a lot to be desired.

The opportunity to make a major difference in the way our city treats people at street-level could be a transformative move for Atlanta. When we combine a walkable environment with streetcars, light-rail and heavy rail transit with the development of attractive boulevards and parks, Atlanta could become one of the most beautiful cities in the country.

Click here to read the previous column: City of Atlanta and MARTA can create transit model in age of micro-regionalism.

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.

27 replies
  1. David J. Edwards says:

    One thing to bear in mind:  the $900M infrastructure backlog figure that you cite was based on a study we did during the Franklin Administration.  That study concluded that we had a $750M backlog in traffic signals, street lights, school flashers, street paving, sidewalks, bridges and city-owned fleet and facilities as of 2008. We also concluded that this backlog grows at about $40M per year.  In other words, the $250M that was recently approved by the voters does not make a dent in the original backlog.  It does not even wholly offset the $320M in backlog we have added since 2008.  When it comes to our core municipal infrastructure, we are not even treading water.

    I hope folks will think about this issue when considering a new sales tax to expand MARTA or other transit infrastructure.  It is not sexy to fix bridges and streets, but they are critical to a functioning city.  I would propose that we develop a plan to address our core infrastructure before we consider any shiny new objects.Report

    Reply
  2. scfranklin says:

    @david
    You are a facts guy and for that we should be thankful. Facts are fundamental for making smart public policy decisions. Armed with facts, I believe voters will make sound decisions for the use of their money. That is Atlanta’s experience in recent years in decisions voters have made to finance the controversial and expensive overhaul of the water and sewer systems and the investment in upgrading and replacing public school buildings and school sports fcilities. To paraphrase a music legend “numbers don’t lie” and voters know that.Report

    Reply
  3. Sally Flocks says:

    Thank you David for the reality check.To get more specific, the backlog of broken sidewalks in Atlanta far exceeds the $152 million estimate provided by city leaders.That number came from a 2010 report. Since then, Public Works Commissioner Richard Mendoza estimated ongoing deterioration at $15 million / year — which sets the likely backlog at $227 million. The 2010 estimate was based on limited surveys, so even that number is likely to be a gross underestimate.  Repairing sidewalks throughout the City will benefit far more people
    than large investments in a small number of high-cost projects.

    Unfortunately, it’s not the voters who have the final say on whether or
    not our money is used wisely. At town hall meetings about the bond
    project list in 2014, people selected sidewalk repairs as one of their top
    priorities. Despite that, city officials pulled the rug out from under our feet by stripping the proposed $70 lump sum for sidewalk repairs from the infrastructure project list and cutting the proposed $35 million for curb ramps to $5 million. 

    In 2015 the City Council approved allocating $8 million to build a high-end pedestrian bridge connecting the Vine City MARTA station to the new football stadium. Where did that come from? And why?  For the same price, Atlanta could install 80 traffic signals or over 300 median refuge islands — something that would benefit far more people.

    Any suggestions for giving voters a bigger say in how our taxes are spent?Report

    Reply
  4. ironic1 says:

    We’ve lived in Atlanta for 35+ years and have seen the infrastructure deteriorate.

    The referendum passed last year apparently has not been spent on streets, roads, bridges and sidewalks,
    and no one seems to be able to give an accounting of where it has been spent.

    To note, Atlantans will not give up with vehicles. Reliable reporting has more Millennials moving to the burbs, and they
    are not going to walk, bike or jog to their jobs in mid-town or downtown.
    No to MARTA expansion until we have decent streets, roads, bridges, cross-walks and traffic lights. Really, NO.Report

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  5. ironic1 says:

    David J. Edwards  Yes, thank you. Basics first. Otherwise, the shiny products – like a new football stadium – will take center stage, and we will continue to dodge potholes and ruts on Lenox, LaVista, Briarcliff, Cheshire Bridge, Peachtree Dunwoody – whew! I can’t name all the streets and roads within the city limits. Where does Kassim Reed live? I bet he does not have this problem of pothole avoidance. (Maybe his driver does. Heh.)Report

    Reply
  6. Sally Flocks says:

    ironic1 You’re right that people who live in the suburbs won’t walk to their jobs in Midtown or Downtown. They will, however, walk to transit, which is an important reason that communities in Fulton County need to invest more in sidewalks and safe crossings.

    Be aware that many Fulton County residents don’t own cars — and since sales taxes are paid by everyone, allocating the revenue they generate only to roads, traffic signals, crosswalks and bridges would not be a fair way to allocate funds. You mention crosswalks — but when you compare the cost of these with the cost of bridges, the allocation doesn’t come close to being equitable.Report

    Reply
  7. MFC says:

    ironic1 David J. Edwards interesting you ask about Kasim Reed’s neighborhood.  The AJC should do a study on the expensive street lamps and sidewalks lining the entrance to his neighborhood.  http://www.atlantaga.gov/modules/showdocument.aspx?documentid=6875Report

    Reply
  8. ironic1 says:

    I mostly agree with your comment, but the Millennials I know in Atlanta – and elsewhere – are still attached to their vehicles. On weekends they are more willing to use public transit because they are not bound to work schedules and appointments. True, too, that some younger people find public transit the best, most affordable option for their budgets.

    MARTA is still overcoming a tattered image, though, and it needs to continue to prove itself insecurity and reliability before Metro Atlanta will dive enthusiastically into public transit. Many homeowners in Druid Hills, where I live, see the Emory/CDC Complex taking over the entire neighborhood – “We know what’s best for everyone” – and will fight light transit, just as they did the Carter Expressway more than two decades ago.Report

    Reply
  9. Sally Flocks says:

    ironic1 Be aware that public transit is one of the safest ways to travel — and that far more people are injured or killed in traffic crashes than on public transit. And for people using rail to get to the airport or other destinations, trips are far more reliable than using the downtown connector.Report

    Reply
  10. Chad Carlson says:

    I’ll be voting yes because we really have no other choice and I like Keith Parker of MARTA.It’s difficult though because nine cents on the dollar is way high and the city is broken on so many levels that it doesn’t give one much faith in implementation. Hopefully we’ll get more leaders like Parker, Tim Keane, and Ryan Gravel, and that our next mayor will have genuine concern for the communities and an understanding of good planning. And we definitely needed new leadership at City Council.Report

    Reply
  11. mnst says:

    ironic1 Between very frequent crashes and the increasing number of road range incidents, statistically you’re far safer on MARTA than driving a car on the interstate.Report

    Reply
  12. mnst says:

    MFC ironic1 David J. Edwards That’s the exact kind of streetscape improvement we need more of. That’s a public road, you’re talking about it like it’s the entrance to a gated subdivision.Report

    Reply
  13. mnst says:

    David J. Edwards I was with you up until the “shiny objects” line. Talking about new transit rights-of-way as though they’re throwaway toys is ludicrous. I want to see us build the streetcar line proposed for the Beltline in my neighborhood, as well as to repair the sidewalks between my house and the proposed new station. We have got to do both. Better sidewalks are crucial but they won’t fix our transportation problems on their own.Report

    Reply
  14. ironic1 says:

    mnst MFC ironic1 David J. Edwards If you live on a public road in the City of Atlanta and it looks that good, let us know. I do, and it doesn’t. In fact, my neighborhood is gearing up to do a little battle (maybe a big one) with the city mamas and papas.Report

    Reply
  15. ironic1 says:

    Sally Flocks ironic1 You may be statistically correct, but would you be okay if your biggest investment (home and its value) were being threatened by MARTA’s ambition? But the Saporta Report is strictly in line with your thinking, as the pull-out quotes they feature are of wonderful MARTA.Report

    Reply
  16. ironic1 says:

    mnst ironic1  You are correct, I am sure, but I think someone must argue the point of encroachment of MARTA and the City on private property. Frankly, my family is weary of city taxes with few services, unresponsive government, corruption, traffic, crime and (fill in the blank). The only way I could get the attention of police services is to rob my neighbor or shoot my spouse. We want our property values to hold for about another four years – long enough for us to get settled in a smaller, more attractive community – probably outside of Georgia. Then you guys can have PATH build bike and running trails through your yards and have light rail come through your garages. Doesn’t that sound uh, nice?Report

    Reply
  17. MFC says:

    That raid is in a sw suburban area of Atlanta with no commercial nodes on either end of the street. The point is that why sidewalks are good everywhere the brick pavers and airport landing like lights installed were a huge expense that could have and should have been much better spent.Report

    Reply
  18. J.r. Rich-Bellerose says:

    As much as I’d want those things done I’m not sure I will vote yes. We have the highest taxes in the state and I’d rather see better allocation of resources and some major trimming and auditing before the city should be coming to us with their hands out.Report

    Reply
  19. J.r. Rich-Bellerose says:

    I’m speaking of the additional half penny for city improvements not MARTA. I will vote to increase that funding as they will be separate.Report

    Reply

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