By Maggie Lee
As Atlanta decides how to try and cover road, sidewalk and other repairs with a pot of money that’s not big enough, city residents can expect to see three scenarios on what high-profile projects in two programs may — or may not — get done.
“While we’re not stopping any designs currently underway, we are making difficult decisions regarding which remaining projects will be funded through design and/or construction with the remaining funds available,” said Joshua Williams, the deputy city COO who’s looking into Renew Atlanta and TSPLOST, and reporting to an Atlanta City Council work session on Thursday.
Each scenario emphasizes something different: “complete streets” that offer space for pedestrians, cycles and cars; foundational work like road repaving and signal improvements; or big-ticket items that can attract matching funds from other entities.
(Click here for Williams’ presentation, which includes some details on each scenario and some of the projects in each one.)
Those scenarios will be part of the presentations that Renew and TSPLOST have scheduled over the coming weeks across the city. (Click here for a schedule.) Williams said it’s one of several tools that are being used to prioritize the remaining projects. He said the programs would then return to Council members to present a preliminary trimmed-down list.
Renew and TSPLOST programs offered Atlanta voters hundreds of millions of dollars in in past-due public works, if voters would authorize the city to sell bonds to do the work.
Voters complied, but it’s been becoming clear that the city won’t be able to do as many of the projects as voters thought. Williams has already told Council members that the combined Renew and TSPLOST project lists (including some projects that are already finished) come to $940 million — but there’s only $530 million in revenue.
So that $410 million shortfall means leaving some promised roads without repaving, sidewalks cracked, and lots of other things on Atlanta’s infrastructure to-do list.
It also means that Atlanta City Council and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms may face a more skeptical public whenever they go back to ask voters for more infrastructure repair money. Indeed, when Renew and TSPLOST were set up in 2015 and 2016, they were presented as only the first few steps on fixing Atlanta’s infrastructure backlog.
Explaining the shortfall, Williams returned problems and setbacks he’s mentioned before at Council: higher construction costs, unforeseen things that make a particular job bigger or more difficult, a TSPLOST project list that was on its face back in 2016 known to be larger than the tax that was supposed to underwrite it. Another thing — some projects being added to lists or dropped from lists with little public attention.
A recent audit answers questions about how the Renew Atlanta “bond premium” was spent. Now, that’s not exactly the normal bond proceeds, but it’s not exactly free money either. It was $36.5 million in cash that bond buyers were willing to pay above the face value of the bond. Part of what the premium was spent on was the controversial Northside Drive pedestrian bridge, plus public improvements around the High Performance Computing Center at Georgia Tech and NCR headquarters and a parking deck at Grant Park. Some TSPLOST money is being used to buy expensive Midtown land for an expansion of Piedmont Park and the Atlanta Botanical Garden.
Williams is relatively new to his job: he was appointed last year by Bottoms, who also took office last year. Asked about how projects came and went from the lists, Williams said those decisions were made under the previous administration.
Dustin Hillis, of northwest Atlanta, was one of the Council members on Thursday who thanked Williams for his work. Hillis’ Howell Mill Road-area constituents have been agitating for their complete street, and so has he. Indeed, it’s now on the to-do list under all three scenarios.
But Hillis advised Williams to have timeline information ready before appearing at public meetings.
After all, in the interest of transparency, Renew and TSPLOST projects were listed on a website with estimated construction start dates. And those start dates have been getting later and later.
“The first thing thats going to happen when you go to these public meetings is people are going to see, ‘Oh great, my project is included, now when are you going to start?” said Hillis. “This has been going on almost four years.”