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City Politics

Why Council Members Are Challenging Dickens Over Proposed Transportation Funding Cut

The plan would decrease the department’s funding by more than $7 million and cut its employee ranks by three amid a years-long backlog of road projects.

District 11 Atlanta City Council member Marci Collier Overstreet, seen during an Atlanta Department of Transportation budget hearing this month at City Hall, says her constituents are complaining about road conditions in the community. (Atlanta City Council Office of Communications)

Atlanta City Council members are expressing disapproval with Mayor Andre Dickens’ push to reduce local Department of Transportation funding and staffing as city residents continue to demand that their pothole-plagued roads be repaved as soon as possible.

The $790 million general fund budget Dickens’ office released earlier this month is the largest in Atlanta history. It includes millions in added spending on police services and court operations in addition to other city departments such as parks and recreation.

But if enacted, the proposed budget would decrease ATLDOT’s funding by more than $7 million beginning July 1. It also would reduce the department’s full-time equivalent employee ranks amid a years-long backlog of road improvement projects. Administration officials counter that the city can tap state and federal dollars instead, thus reducing the burden on taxpayers, but city lawmakers still say reducing ATLDOT’s budget still doesn’t make sense to them.

Several City Council members took issue with the proposed cuts during a recent budget hearing with ATLDOT Commissioner Solomon Caviness and other members of his leadership team.

Caviness has been on the job less than six months. The systemic issues he’s addressing, several council members acknowledged, have been going on for years.

District 11 council member Marci Collier Overstreet told the commissioner that the stretch of Campbellton Road in her majority-Black district hasn’t been repaved since the 1990s. She said several of her constituents in southwest Atlanta have complained about road conditions busting their tires in recent months. In fact, the number of drivers in Georgia requiring vehicle repairs due to potholes rose by 57% in 2022, according to a AAA study released in April.

“It’s hard for me to want to be on this page that we don’t need that $7 million in the budget,” Overstreet said during the hearing. “I said at the beginning of budget season, let’s double ATLDOT’s [budget].”

In 2016, Atlanta residents voted in favor of spending an additional $260 million in taxpayer dollars to bankroll a set of underfunded infrastructure projects known as TSPLOST 1.0. The program’s project list includes the resurfacing of dozens of streets across the city.

Members of City Council’s Transportation Committee were taken aback earlier this month when Caviness told them at least 38 TSPLOST 1.0 projects that voters approved seven years ago are still in pre-construction phase. That’s on top of the $750 million in Moving Atlanta Forward infrastructure projects that voters approved last year. That package includes $196.5 million for sidewalks and trails, $32 million for street repairs, and $10 million for traffic and pedestrian signals.

District 3 council member Byron Amos said he wants Caviness to ask for an increase to ATLDOT’s funding instead of a reduction.

“My constituents are always telling me and reminding me we’ve got the money to do the job because they voted for it,” Amos said. “It’s very hard for me to go to them and say projects are not being done, because projects are not being done. Now it’s not being done because we’re cutting the department by three people.”

Overstreet and District 12 council member Antonio Lewis agreed with points made earlier at the hearing by District 9 representative Dustin Hillis. Hillis pointed out Dickens was the person who drafted legislation to create ATLDOT as a former member of the council. The legislative body voted to establish the department in 2019, about two years before Dickens became mayor.

Hillis said proposed funding for ATLDOT is at its lowest point since the department’s creation.

“It seems like we’re going backwards,” he said. “If you look at similar-sized cities, transportation departments, [ATLDOT] is grossly underfunded. Additionally, the department, over the past few years, has been a failure when it comes to simple day-to-day maintenance, such as replacing street signs and a purported [Pothole Posse] that numbers, which we just found out recently, four.”

Caviness said he understood council members’ frustrations with how ATLDOT and road maintenance in the city was handled in the past, but underscored that other sources of capital improvement revenue will be tapped to fund needed road repairs.

Last week, Dickens’ office announced that Gov. Brian Kemp distributed nearly $20 million in American Rescue Plan funding for city infrastructure and transportation projects.

Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021 before President Joe Biden signed the measure into law. The mayor’s office said the federal funds give the city a way to complete important projects “without burdening taxpayers through use of the general fund” budget.

In a press release, Dickens called the funds “a game changer” for the future of Atlanta.

“We value the continued partnership with the State in projects that benefit us all,” Dickens said in the statement.

In its current form, Caviness said the proposed budget grants him the flexibility to raise the bar on Atlanta road quality.

“I absolutely see the opportunity, given a smart approach to our budget,” he said. “On the surface it doesn’t look smart, but I will say we are working with the administration, or rather our leadership, to think about how we innovate by way of this budget.”