The problem with Atlanta's incomplete list of infrastructure bond projects
The inability for residents to know ultimately prevents them from making an informed decision about the bond package.
- Max Blau
- Cascade Investor, LLC, a real-estate firm founded by Mayor Kasim Reed, could see the value of its property off Fairburn Road rise due to one infrastructure bond project.
March 17 is voters’ last chance to cast a ballot for or against a $250 million infrastructure bond package that would fund fixing bridges, paving roads, installing bike lanes, and maintaining buildings. According to Mayor Kasim Reed, the massive spending plan would be the largest above-the-ground investment of its kind in a generation. Taxes won't be raised. That's why he touted the vote as a “no brainer” during a V-103 appearance this morning.
But one of the main gripes lobbed against the bond package process so far is that, contrary to what city officials said last summer, the public likely won't see a final project list. Officials say the list of more than 225 projects is around 95-percent finalized, but it's subject to change after the referendum.
That strategy differs from the city's approach to the last major transportation infrastructure bond package in 1994. Before that referendum, according to public officials who served at City Hall during that time, residents knew the exact public projects that would have received funding before they headed to their polling precinct. There wasn’t a draft list. Officials didn’t tell them that everything would be worked out at a later date. They saw an actual list of projects that officials intended to pay for with the bond funding.
Atlanta officials could make this happen. They have discussed some of the projects in meetings and reports prior to the 2015 infrastructure bond package’s announcement. But the lack of information readily available to the public leading up to the referendum has raised questions about the process surrounding the bond package.
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The city’s infrastructure bond website is where officials have pointed the public to find out information about proposed fixes. Let's zoom in on a specific project: a stretch of Fairburn Road that would receive $1.75 million for repairs.
The website shows that 2.5-miles of the north-south road near the city's western edge would receive Complete Streets improvements that include "milling, repaving, and installation of bicycle lanes, sidewalks, and pedestrian improvements" from Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to Cascade Road. According to the city's Connect Atlanta bicycle plan, the bond package project would help the city eventually reach a long-term goal of installing 8.8 miles of bike lanes on Fairburn Road.
At first glance, the Fairburn Road project appears to be a solid investment based on the information presented to the public. Granted, there are higher-priority projects for bicyclists not included in the infrastructure bond. The Connect Atlanta plan designates Fairburn Road as a "secondary bicycle connection." Rebecca Serna, executive director of Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, tells CL that improving the north-south road would help link Cascade Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, which are two major east-west arteries. But she says other projects, such as installing bike lanes on Lee Street from the Atlanta University Center to the Atlanta Beltline's Westside Trail and extending DeKalb Avenue from the Inman Park MARTA Station to Decatur Street, should be prioritized to strengthen the city’s core bicycle lane network.
Brent Brewer, a Historic West End resident and organizer of People for a Livable Lee Street, an advocacy effort to bring protected bike lanes to Lee Street from Fort McPherson to the Beltline's Westside Trail, says Fairburn Road is a lower-priority project and might have made the bond package list given its location on a “more politically influential and affluent side of southwest Atlanta.” Its proximity to the residence of some influential elected officials means that an important project like Lee Street bike lanes will be passed over in the bond package, he says.
The Complete Streets project would provide bikers with a new route heading past a fenced-off property, located north of a bustling retail shopping center at the intersection of Fairburn and Cascade roads, just outside the city limits. A 38,000 square-foot warehouse on that site sits in slight disrepair: weeds have spouted from cracked concrete leading to the loading dock, vandals have tagged graffiti on the walls, and the building's front sign is missing. There's a sidewalk across the street, but not in front of the warehouse. Fairburn Road has some slight wear and tear. But no major needs that are visible.
Cascade Investors, LLC, a real-estate firm the mayor founded and remains involved with to this day, owns the warehouse and two parcels of land that comprise a total of roughly 7.5 acres. Fulton County property records show the lots and the warehouse have a combined value of $564,000. The property doesn't necessarily have much appeal right now. With some infrastructure investment, the land's value might rise, or even pique a developer's interest.
William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, doesn't know whether the project just happened to pass by the warehouse site or if it was intentional. But he has concerns about the mayor's potential gain off the bond package's road project.
“Surely there are higher priority areas that need this type of improvement before a road leading to the Mayor's property,” Common Cause Georgia Executive Director William Perry tells CL.
Reed Senior Adviser Melissa Mullinax tells CL in an email that Department of Public Works Commissioner Richard Mendoza has since updated the plan for the boundaries of the Fairburn Road project. It now only runs 1.25 miles from Martin Luther King Jr. Drive south to Benjamin E. Mays Drive — not past Cascade Investors’ property.
"As you know, the list is not final and has been changing," Mullinax says. "...We need to update the online project list."
The bond infrastructure referendum website still says the project would run all the way past the warehouse to Cascade Road. But Reed Spokeswoman Jenna Garland says the portion of the road running past the warehouse will be funded by Fulton County, as it falls outside the city limits.
"The city is taking every opportunity to leverage state, federal, and private philanthropic funds to expand the impact of projects or reduce costs to the city," Garland writes in an email. "The Fairburn Road complete streets project is an example of this strategy."
Fulton Spokeswoman Jessica Corbitt tells CL the county's workers will install sidewalks, but not street paving or bike lanes, along the stretch of Fairburn Road in Fulton County. Crews will make those improvements on a one-mile span of the road running from Village Drive, north past Cascade Road, to about 160 feet past Utoy Creek. That stretch passes through a swath of unincorporated Fulton sandwiched between two of Atlanta's city borders.
Despite being outside the city's limits, the half-mile stretch of Fairburn Road directly north of Cascade Road remains on the city's proposed map of infrastructure projects. In a follow-up conversation, Garland says the city's mistake on the infrastructure website should be corrected. But the cost on the website still appears to be $1.75 million, even though the project is half as long as initially outlined.
According to Mullinax, Reed didn’t play a direct role in selecting the Complete Streets plan for Fairburn Road. There isn’t strong evidence to suggest otherwise. She says this project, like many of the more than 225 projects in the massive bond package, draws from plans created during former Mayor Shirley Franklin’s administration.
“Some projects have been documented for nearly a decade,” Mullinax says. “This project is nothing new. It's something the mayor didn't have any involvement with.”
If such documentation exists, why haven't residents seen that information in a finalized list? Voters won't have complete information about the bond package and its projects when headed to the polls. In the case of the Fairburn Road plan, the city might have made a small error on its website. Or there could be potential conflict of interest like a project boosting the mayor's property value. But the inability for residents to know — one way or the other — ultimately prevents them from making an informed decision about the bond package.
The Fairburn Road project is just one example of more than 225 projects that could be funded through the March 17 vote. Given that residents saw a full bond project list prior to the 1994 referendum, the city should have taken the same approach ahead of this year’s vote on St. Patrick's Day.