Cover Story: Your guide to Atlanta’s $250 million infrastructure bond package
Should you vote to improve the city’s crumbling roads and bridges? Or is the plan too flawed? Here’s what you need to know for the March 17 referendum.
Atlanta, in some places, is literally crumbling. DeKalb Avenue’s littered with potholes. Pedestrians can’t walk safely along Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard. Downtown’s Courtland Street Bridge, older than most Atlantans, needs to be replaced.
City officials haven’t made a major infrastructure investment since 2000, when voters overwhelmingly approved a Quality of Life Improvements bond. After years of neglect, the number of potholes on Atlanta’s roads has damaged more cars than Mayor Kasim Reed has blocked Twitter followers. The city’s current infrastructure backlog now totals more than $900 million and could be, depending on which official you ask, as high as $1.5 billion. That figure will continue to grow if nothing happens to fix the problem.
Enter the city’s $250 million infrastructure bond that voters will decide on March 17. Reed has touted the proposed funding package as the largest above-the-ground investment that Atlanta has seen in a generation. Thirteen years after former Mayor Shirley Franklin agreed to overhaul the city’s sewers, Reed says the time has come to focus on things people can see and touch. Two ballot questions will greet voters — one asking to take on approximately $188 million in debt to pay for roads, sidewalks, bike lanes, and bridges, and another focused solely on $64 million to build and fix public buildings. The lion’s share of each pot of funding would be focused on “citywide” projects. The rest would be split among councilmembers, a little more than $5 million in each district, to spend on constituents’ needs.
More than $12 million would be dedicated to public art, including rehabbing works installed during the 1996 Olympics. Millions of dollars would be spent making ramps, curbs, and buildings ADA-compliant, something that the city should have done years ago. It could also help protect the city from lawsuits.
Reed’s administration has spent several years identifying high-priority projects, crunching costs, and holding meetings to gather citizen input. Reed says investment could be a shot in the arm that will fundamentally change the “look, feel, and experience” of the city. The mayor would also notch a major political win, likely defining his final years in office and padding his résumé for a potential bid at higher office.
If voters say yes to one or both of the questions on the referendum, city officials will likely finalize the project list sometime in the spring and then head to the bond market this summer. Atlanta would take on approximately $250 million in debt, get cash, and start building as soon as possible, city officials say. If voters reject the ballot measures, says Reed Spokeswoman Jenna Garland, the city would have to take a “piecemeal” approach.
Here’s the thing with bonds: If Atlanta can’t make its annual debt payments plus interest, taxpayers would likely pick up the tab. Reed says that won’t happen — an easy pledge when the economy is improving.
Thanks to the Reed administration’s frequently touted efforts to shore up City Hall’s finances, reform the employee pension program, and cut waste, credit rating agencies have given their seal of approval, which means a more favorable bond deal. Just like any citizen’s personal credit, the better it is, the lower your interest rate. Atlanta’s now in a position to pay for the interest through a series of budget cuts made in 2014 — relocating the Cyclorama to the Atlanta History Center and reducing leasing expenses for the city — and from city property sales, such as the still-pending offloading of Underground Atlanta and the Atlanta Civic Center, based on the mayor’s special “blue-ribbon” commission’s recommendations. Finance officials are betting that the cuts and cash from property sales, along with incremental rises in tax revenues, as more and more people flock to the city, will pay off the debt. But that isn’t a guarantee.
What are we getting for this financial transaction? More than 225 projects are tentatively included in the bond package. They range from new signs and traffic lights costing a few thousand dollars to bridges and buildings with multimillion-dollar price tags. Some are obvious choices for repairs. Others raise eyebrows. Because the city hasn’t finalized the project list, a source of contention among critics, people won’t entirely know what they’re voting on at the polls. Atlanta City Council members, including Councilman Alex Wan, have expressed concern about whether the public works department has enough staff to complete infrastructure projects. No oversight committee currently exists to monitor progress. And if projects start going over budget, money to finish them will have to come from somewhere. Where exactly — possibly the general fund or a tax hike once Reed’s left City Hall — well, we’ll see. The city says it has a team ready to manage the construction. And as Creative Loafing went to press, Council planned to create an oversight group.
Do we say yes to improving some roads, new bike lanes, and fixed sidewalks, plus some other facilities, and start addressing our broken city? Or do we swat down a plan with flaws to send a message to elected officials? There will be low turnout — only 277 people cast a ballot in the first eight days of early voting — so your vote matters.