Atlanta Could Start Chipping Away At $1B Infrastructure Backlog

A sign under the Courtland Street Bridge warns that the bridge is spalling, or crumbling.
A sign under the Courtland Street Bridge warns that the bridge is spalling, or crumbling.
Credit Brenna Beech / WABE

Crumbling sidewalks, potholed streets: Atlanta needs work.

Next week, Atlanta residents vote on a $250 million bond referendum that would allow the city to catch up on some of its infrastructure problems.

At a meeting last week, about 40 people attended a meeting to learn more about the vote and to tell city officials what they think needs fixing.

“On my street, we need sidewalks,” said Lynette Grant, who lives in the Baker Hills neighborhood, just west of the Perimeter. “We have a school bus that comes down my street, and the children have to basically walk out in the streets.”

At least her street is paved.

“We never got our final paving,” Jerry Hicks, who lives in a subdivision that the developer didn’t finish building, said. “All of the manholes are above the ground. People have ruined their cars because they hit those [manhole] covers.”

Betty Borden lives in a high rise for senior citizens. She said the sidewalk is so bad, people in wheelchairs or with walkers can’t use it. 

“They’re walking in the middle of the street, they’re riding in the middle of the street,” Borden said. “And then there is an industrial area there where there’s big trucks always in and out. I’m just afraid someone is going to get hit and hurt really bad.”

How Did It Get This Bad

The bonds would raise money for neighborhood projects, and also larger ones that Richard Mendoza, Atlanta’s public works commissioner, considers citywide issues.

“We’re recognizing that in order for us to ensure that our infrastructure is maintained, we’re going to have to start rolling up our sleeves and taking care of our own,” Mendoza said while standing under the Courtland Street Bridge on Georgia State University’s campus.

The bridge is of those big projects.  

“The original structure is approximately 105 years old. About 50 years ago, it was reinforced with steel beams,” he said.

Now it has signs posted warning that the bridge is crumbling.

Mendoza said the city put off repairs during the Great Recession. And some things, like the bridge, are just really old and need to be replaced instead of getting more repairs.

The city has racked up a backlog of about $1 billion, according to Mendoza. The bonds would only address a quarter of it, but it would be a start. And he said the city is in good enough financial shape that it won’t have to raise taxes in order to repay the bonds.

The list of projects still isn’t final. Atlanta’s asking residents to approve the sale of the bonds without specific plans of what would be fixed. But it could be anything from poorly timed traffic lights to leaky fire station roofs.

“Atlanta’s not alone in having a large pot of issues to tackle,” Heather Alhadeff, an urban planner in Atlanta who used to work for the city, said.

Atlanta is like many other urban centers, she said. Its population doubles on weekdays, and all those people are using its infrastructure.

“You know if I came to your house and used your driveway and flushed your toilets and used your mail and your garbage, and everybody on the block did, you know your infrastructure would wear down faster,” Alhadeff said.

But, she said, not everyone’s paying for it. The population of the city itself is small. And property taxes, compared to other big cities, are relatively low. So funding has fallen behind.

And the bonds aren’t going to fix everything, Alhadeff said.

“This should be one stop along the road, but we really can’t wash our hands after we’ve voted and say great we’re done, we’ve got it all taken care of,” she said.

Early voting has already started. The official date for the referendum is March 17. The City Council is supposed to finalize the project list soon after that. That includes about $5 million for each city councilmember to allocate for local projects.

If voters support selling the bonds, some repairs, like repaving, could start within a few months.

This is the second story in our series on the upcoming bond referendum. We’ll explore some of the bigger projects in upcoming stories.