Impatience growing for information on Renew Atlanta construction projects

By Maggie Lee

As a $250 million Atlanta public program for road, bridge, sidewalk and public building works is going through a bit of a reset, there’s some impatience for information about what will — and won’t — get done.

“When I voted for this once-in-a-generation investment, it was for a specific project list. The reason that I voted was largely because of the number of complete streets,” said Jordan Streiff, an Atlanta resident and cyclist, speaking at a regular meeting of Atlanta City Council’s Transportation Committee on Wednesday. He said now it doesn’t seem clear how projects will be prioritized.

DeKalb Avenue is slated for a "complete street" upgrade, though the idea has run into objections. Credit: Kelly Jordan

DeKalb Avenue in east Atlanta is slated for a “complete street” upgrade, though the idea has run into objections. Credit: Kelly Jordan

“Complete streets” are corridors that accommodate different modes of transportation: pedestrians, cyclists, drivers and public transit users.

That’s only one type of project on the long list of “Renew Atlanta.” That program is also supposed to include road repaving, bridge work, fire station renovations and more. In 2015, Atlanta voters approved letting the city borrow $250 million to do those works.

But Renew is doing a reboot or rebaselining of its entire program, its interim general manager said at a public meeting earlier this month. Some of the projects on the list may not happen; not with Renew money anyway.

The leadership of Renew, and a similar program called TSPLOST that uses sales tax for transit works, have twice this month delayed a regular update to the Council committee.

Councilman Dustin Hillis called it “bad, unfortunate, unacceptable news that we will not be getting an update from Renew and TSPLOST today.”

His northwest Atlanta district includes part of a 2.25-mile complete street upgrade planned for Howell Mill Road, which is one of the Renew Atlanta projects that is far past its original construction start date without construction having started.

About a dozen complete streets fans, including folks from the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, showed up at the committee meeting hoping to hear the Renew update and to say they want those projects done as planned all over the city on roads like Howell Mill, Cascade Road, DeKalb Avenue and more.

Sherry Williams, who’s with Georgia Stand-Up, a nonprofit that works for inclusive, sustainable growth, spoke up for sidewalks that would be paid for with both Renew Atlanta funds and TSPLOST.

Lyndhurst Drive in southwest Atlanta, pictured in September with new paving, sidewalks, lights and more, in part with Renew Atlanta Bond money. Credit: Maggie Lee

A September, 2017 file photo shows a small version of a finished “complete street,” temporarily closed for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Lynhurst Drive has wide sidewalks, street lights and shoulders about wide enough to leave some breathing room for bikes, paid for in part with Renew Atlanta Bond money. Credit: Maggie Lee

“Somebody needs to be more fiscally responsible when it comes to those Renew and TSPLOST funds,” Williams told the committee.

She’s also been watching upgrade projects on Campbellton and Cascade roads, where start dates have been delayed. That’s “totally unacceptable,” she told SR.

At-large City Councilman Andre Dickens, the committee chair, said his inbox is full of notes from constituents who want to know what’s happening with their neighborhoods’ Renew projects. He said he’s encouraging folks to send emails not just to their Council members, but to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and to Renew Atlanta so that all sides understand the “magnitude” of concerns.

Bottoms’ deputy chief of staff, Charletta Wilson-Jacks, told the committee that city Deputy Chief Operating Officer Joshua Williams has been working with Renew staff to “make sure all the i’s are dotted” and that there’s an accounting of funds. She said Renew expects to appear at the next committee meeting. That’s Nov. 14.

Dickens noted that there’s work underway to create a city department of transportation. He himself has authored legislation to do that. Such a department would put things like Renew and TSPLOST under one department that permanently deals with such work. With such a department, these things would have flowed a lot better, he said.

There’s a bit of management turnover at Renew Atlanta and TSPLOST. Longtime leader Faye DiMassimo left City Hall in April for a private sector job. Former city deputy Tom Weyandt then became interim general manager. As of last week, the programs had a new interim general manager in Michele Wynn, who was promoted from within.

Wynn, speaking at that public meeting about two weeks ago, said that a rebaselining of a program this large is normal. Things change, like construction costs, design and scope.

Indeed, complex projects like a complete street are more liable to run up higher design costs than a more straightforward project like resurfacing a road.

And they might run into public objections. “Complete streets” are a bit of a new idea in a car-centric city. Speaking earlier this year about delays to the DeKalb Avenue complete street project, DiMassimo, the former Renew leader, said that coming to consensus on complete streets can take time.

Documents:
Renew Atlanta master schedule as of February, 2017

Renew Atlanta master schedule as of September, 2018

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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