Atlanta Department of Transportation employees Dequintin James and Rafael Miles hate potholes as much as anyone. It’s one of the reasons they do what they do for a living.
“I have to ride on the same streets that everybody else does,” Miles, 44, told Capital B Atlanta during a recent road repair session on 16th Street in Midtown. “I’ve been living here basically my whole life, and so the city’s important to me, just like it should be important to anybody else.”
Miles and James work as equipment operators on the Pothole Posse, a rotating group of municipal technicians tasked with responding to road and sidewalk maintenance complaints made to Atlanta’s 311 non-emergency hotline.
Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin founded the Pothole Posse in the early 2000s to help city DOT personnel react more quickly to minor street repair requests. Current Mayor Andre Dickens revived the program last year.
Since then, Pothole Posse crew members have filled more than 14,000 holes, including more than 2,000 patched up this year as of March, according to Atlanta DOT Deputy Commissioner Allen Smith.
Potholes have been a hot-button issue and a thorn in the side of city residents for decades. In March alone, the hotline received more than 2,000 service requests, an increase from the same period last year. Some question whether roads in poorer, often majority-Black neighborhoods, receive the same level of attention from DOT officials as more affluent white areas of the city.
“I might as well fix them”
James moved to the city’s Hunter Hills neighborhood from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his family as an infant. He grew up hearing family members complain about potholes and has spent the past four years of his life trying to eliminate them.
“I got a truck with rims on it, and so, yeah, I’m very serious about potholes,” he said. “I’ve got to dodge them all day long, so I might as well fix them.”
A fresh layer of steaming hot bitumen and a firm pat-down from a plate compactor is all it usually takes for James and Miles to patch up a city street. The entire process typically lasts about 10 minutes, according to James, 29, who has worked for ATLDOT for about four years.
The first step, he says, is spraying the damaged area with tack.
“That’s the glue for the asphalt to combine with the ground,” James said. “Next, we drop the asphalt, spread it, and then tap it. Smooth it out.”
Miles was born in Philadelphia but moved to the metro area with his family during the 1980s when he was in elementary school. He’s been fixing Atlanta roads for the past five years.
Miles says communication is a critical part of road repair equity.
“In some of the other neighborhoods, they know that they’re supposed to communicate and call the city and let them know what the problem is and where the problem is,” he said. “In some of the other neighborhoods, some of the inner city neighborhoods, they don’t know that. So they have to understand that if you dial 311, you can call in, tell them where the problem is, and we’ll come fix it.”
Smith has worked for the city for almost 17 years, taking on his current leadership role about a year ago. He says pothole repair throughout Atlanta is “pretty evenly distributed,” despite heavier vehicles driving and increasing wear and tear on roads in certain neighborhoods.
“Those [areas] tend to be a little more in a poorer condition, but, generally speaking, the roads are about the same throughout the city,” Smith said. “We have 12 council districts, and we fill about 90 potholes per council district per month.”
“They do not spend a dime over here”
Not everyone agrees with Smith’s characterization of road repair equity in Atlanta. The number of drivers in Georgia who suffered vehicle damage requiring repairs due to potholes surged by 57% in 2022, according to a AAA study released in April.
Bankhead resident Vivian Roberts, 63, a retired school bus driver, said ATLDOT needs to repave the roads in her neighborhood, not just patch up potholes that often end up resurfacing.
“They do not spend a dime over here,” she said. “They need to do the whole street completely from one end and stop scraping it and patching it.”
People on Roberts’ side of town say their residential streets have become popular detours and a “speedway” in recent years for motorists from outside the community looking to avoid gridlocked traffic on the interstate.
Roberts’ neighbor Kenneth Owens, 56, said commuters often zoom down the street in his neighborhood reaching high speeds, putting local children playing outside at greater risk of getting hit by cars.
“I’ve been trying to get some speed bumps here,” Owens said. “Take care of my neighborhood like you take care up north in Buckhead. Do it that way. Actions speak louder than words.”
Roberts said there’s been an influx of moving trucks and film crew vehicles adding wear and tear to the local streets in recent years. The pavement directly in front of her house was missing a huge chunk of concrete when Capital B Atlanta visited in late April.
The condition of Bankhead’s roads has cost Roberts in more ways than one.
She said she called 311 in January after a pothole on Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard near North Avenue severely damaged her 2002 Ford Taurus SE. That particular pothole has since been repaired, she said, but for Roberts, it was too little, too late.
“I had to get four new tires,” she said. “[The city] told me they’re not going to fix [my car] because there was so many complaints about folks and their potholes.”
Bankhead isn’t the only majority-Black neighborhood with road repair problems. Residents and business owners on Atlanta’s West End say streets in their neighborhood are littered with busted concrete.
Ree Douglas, 31, an entrepreneur who lives in the neighborhood, says road conditions in her community have led to repeat visits to repair shops.
“I just want the roads repaired,” Douglas said. “You don’t need to apologize about the delay or the damage. Just fix it.”
Zen Nye, 31, is the owner of Shameless Plant Based Eatery, a pop-up restaurant currently located on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard. Motorists driving on the road outside her shop often change lanes to avoid a huge pothole there.
“They’ve come and they’ve filled it over time,” Nye said of ATLDOT officials, “and then of course, since they’re just filling, it’s going to fall back in.”
Several other potholes and rough patches can be seen on the street less than a mile west of Nye’s restaurant, she pointed out. Nye, who lives in Decatur after moving from Sandy Springs, disagrees with the assertion that government officials treat roads in less affluent neighborhoods the same as roads in wealthier areas.
“In my neighborhood in Decatur, there have been plenty of potholes that they have not paved, but have filled and that have since resurfaced,” she said. “I didn’t see things like that when I was in Sandy Springs.”
“It’s always going to come down to money”
Smith estimates the posse patches about 35 potholes a day. He says the group has only four dedicated staffers right now, and employee attrition has an issue.
ATLDOT construction maintenance workers start out making a minimum of $15 an hour, but equipment operators like James and Miles can make up to about $25 an hour, depending on their level of experience, Smith said.
“We would like to bring on two more crews if we could,” Smith said. “We’re in the middle of budget season, so it’s always going to come down to money.”
ATLDOT’s operating budget was more than $57.5 million this fiscal year. However, the department is requesting $7 million less in budget funding for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. A budget hearing on the matter is scheduled to take place on Thursday, May 18, inside City Hall.
Some of Atlanta’s road repair issues may be addressed in the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST) program that city residents voted in favor of in 2016.
The $250 million program was launched to help fund a $1 billion backlog on city infrastructure projects. Repairs to Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, for example, are included in TSPLOST 1.0.
The program’s projects still haven’t been completed despite ATLDOT starting on TSPLOST 2.0 projects approved by voters last year. Some of the projects are just getting started despite being approved eight years ago.
Several City Council members recently raised concerns about the TSPLOST programs and street repairs in their districts during a transportation committee hearing with ATLDOT Commissioner Solomon Caviness IV, who Mayor Andre Dickens appointed in November.
District 6 council member Alex Wan questioned why it has taken eight years to complete some TSPLOST 1.0 projects and the thought process behind reducing ATLDOT funding when so many city streets need to be repaved.
He cited an ATLDOT quarterly report that says the department has 91 vacant positions.
“There’s going to be a broader conversation on why your budget was cut back,” Wan said while issuing what he characterized as a “warning shot.”
“I think that’s the tail wagging the dog,” he said of proposed funding cuts. “We think you should be [increasing] your capacity, not cut back your funding because of limited capacity.”
District 3 council member Byron Amos and District 12 rep Antonio Lewis raised concerns about potholes on a stretch of Metropolitan Parkway between Cleveland Avenue and Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard.
Lewis said some of the potholes there are a lot worse than in other parts of the city.
“They’re bigger, and they are deep,” he said. “I’ve gotten phone calls every other day from people calling me about [traffic] cones in potholes.”
He also questioned why the Georgia Department of Transportation stopped repaving areas near Metropolitan Parkway.
“A lot of Black folks live on Metropolitan Parkway,” Lewis said. “A lot of people live right there where they stopped paving at.”
GDOT asked for more time to respond to the concerns raised by City Council members.
“Allow us to do our job”
Steam and the pungent scent of hot asphalt filled the air as James and Miles finished patching a pothole outside the Museum of Design Atlanta near Peachtree Street late last month before the latter used a bow rake to smooth out the fresh pavement.
The two men say they are doing their part to change the way many Atlanta residents feel about road conditions.
“What I like about my job is I get to help the people of Atlanta, make sure they have a safe and smooth ride,” Miles said. “We’re doing a lot of different things and doing more than probably has been done in the past.”
James acknowledged Atlanta’s reputation for pothole problems, but asked residents to be more proactive by calling 311 when they see a road repair problem.
He also asked for people to be more patient with road repair crews.
“We get a lot of heat sometimes,” James said. “We’re out here in the road. We’re stopping cars, impeding traffic, so to speak. So just be patient with us and allow us to do our job, so we can make everything safe for everybody in Atlanta.”