Around 150 people attended a community meeting Jan. 24 in Buckhead to help set new priorities for transportation-related projects following funding shortfalls. Their main input was widespread confusion about the meeting’s complicated process and information overload about hundreds of Renew Atlanta and TSPLOST program projects as they tried to decide which ones to scrap.

However, there’s more time for information digestion and public comment, with the full presentation online with a survey active through Feb. 4, and a second public meeting coming Feb. 28 to the same location, the Sutton Middle School. The city hopes to have a final list of priority projects in March.

In the city’s first draft of recommended project lists, many major Buckhead projects survive, including the PATH400 multiuse trail and several Buckhead Community Improvement District road improvements. And roughly 15 local projects are on the suggested chopping block, including the South Fork Conservancy/PATH400 Confluence Bridge, the Blue Heron Nature Preserve Blueway Trail, and a variety of intersection and road improvements.

“We don’t understand the trade-offs, really,” one resident said in a common complaint about three alternative priority project lists offered by the city.

While residents struggled to dig through such information, there was widespread – if not unanimous – praise for the city’s apologies for having to do it at all and its officials’ efforts to improve trust. The Renew Atlanta and TSPLOST programs were both approved by voters based on project lists, created by former Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration, that city leaders now acknowledge were unrealistic and lacking in priorities to deal with funding shortfalls.

Joshua Williams, Atlanta’s deputy chief operations officer, speaks to the large crowd at the Renew Atlanta/TSPLOST project meeting Jan. 14 at Sutton Middle School. (John Ruch)

City Councilmember Matt Westmoreland and Joshua Williams, the city’s new deputy chief operations officer, were among those offering apologies to the crowd.

“Quite frankly, you don’t trust us, and I don’t blame you,” Williams told one group of residents in a break-out session, drawing applause as he said one goal of the process was to rebuild that relationship.

Members of the City Council were out in force, including Buckhead-area Councilmembers J.P. Matzigkeit and Howard Shook; Council President Felicia Moore; and Councilmembers Andre Dickens and Dustin Hillis. Mary Norwood, former city councilmember and current chair of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, also attended.

Problems and new priorities

The city is in bind as it tries to fulfill a promise to construct various transportation and infrastructure projects now estimated to cost more than $940 million with funding sources now estimated to total around $540 million.

Two main programs are involved. Renew Atlanta is a bond approved by voters in 2015 that raised $250 million to go towards an estimated $1 billion backlog in repairs and upgrades to streets, public buildings and other infrastructure. TSPLOST is a 0.4-percent special local option sales tax dedicated to transportation and transit projects. Approved by voters in 2016, the TSPLOST was projected to raise $380 million over five years, but which the city now believes will raise only $260 million partly due to bad calcuations.

Other factors in the funding shortfalls include higher budgets and construction costs; projects that grew larger than originally planned; and additional projects added to the programs after “stakeholder” input.

Both programs failed to list the projects in any kind of priority order, which is especially important in the current situation, when some of them must get the ax.

City Councilmember Andre Dickens, who chairs the council’s Transportation Committee, explains city policy to residents in one of the breakout sessions. (John Ruch)

The city is now trying to fix that situation by placing both programs’ projects onto a list by priorities, which means some may take longer than expected and others will be killed or must find other funding sources.

Many projects were already built with the programs’ funding, including BeltLine-related trails around Buckhead’s Atlanta Memorial Park, and any currently under construction will be completed. But all of the other transportation-related projects in the programs are getting a second look. Of the $540 million in estimated available funding, about $108.9 million is still available to be spent on those types of projects, officials said.

At the Jan. 24 meeting, Michelle Wynn, Renew Atlanta’s interim general manager, outlined the city’s standards for setting the priority list. They include judging a project by: how closely it matches the Atlanta Transportation Plan’s principles of “safety, equity and mobility”; how close it is to being finished; its ability to get funding from other sources, such as the Buckhead CID; and public and “stakeholder” feedback.

The results of sticker-voting on the various project “scenarios” in one breakout session. Many residents said they were confused by the jargon and process. (John Ruch)

Based on those standards, the city is proposing three alternative priority lists or “scenarios,” intended to bump certain kinds of projects up the list based on different overall transportation goals. One list is “Complete Streets,” focused on projects that make streets friendly to all types of users, not just drivers. Another is “Foundational Investments,” focused on basics like repaving and traffic signal upgrades. A third list is “Max Leveraged Funding,” focused on major projects that are boosted by other funding sources; they include bridges, intersections, streetscape improvements and street widenings.

Many projects would be fully funded in all three scenarios, including a “Complete Streets” program and widening on Piedmont Road. In some scenarios, certain projects would be funded for design but not construction, or not funded at all.

Confusion and comments

The cumbersome names of the three alternative “scenarios” were among the sources of widespread confusion about the complex, jargon-heavy public input process, materials and terminology. The project lists and the scenarios themselves can change based on public input, but many residents said they were struggling to understand the presentation as it was.

Residents begin working through the dense project information in one of the Renew Atlanta/TSPLOST breakout session groups. (John Ruch)

Many residents were interested in specific projects that they said were hard to locate on a main spreadsheet-style list, while a summary of each scenario provided only an abbreviated list of “highlighted” projects. The crowd was broken up into five groups meeting in separate rooms. There, residents attempted to digest the project lists and unfamiliar terms while sticker-voting on the three scenarios and writing on notecards that could contain a list of favorite projects, general questions and comments, or all of the above.

“Nobody’s going over what we’re losing,” Peachtree Hills resident Laura Dobson said of the project lists. “I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I don’t even know where the shoe is.”

Williams, the deputy COO, apologized to some residents for the complexity. He said the sticker-voting on scenarios was intended to provide a “value statement” about overall visions rather than a formal poll on project lists. He said he understood that many residents preferred to understand the “granular” detail of individual projects before taking a position on any scenario.

Joshua Williams, the city’s deputy chief operations officer, answers a question in a breakout session at the Renew Atlanta/TSPLOST meeting. (John Ruch)

While a number of residents praised the ability to weigh in, some also still had trust issues and noted the original programs were produced by public meetings as well. A few expressed concerns that the decisions were already made or would be done privately by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms or other officials.

“Am I correct that the ultimate selection of projects [is] the mayor’s decision?” asked NPU-A chair Brink Dickerson, one of the skeptical residents.

Williams said that no official will make a unilateral decision and that the final proposed priority list will be reviewed by the mayor, the City Council and the general public.

“The mayor is not going to say, ‘Joshua, this is the final list and [I] could care less what the public says,’” Williams said.

Buckhead projects on the early cutting lists

Buckhead-area projects recommended for partial or no funding include the following.

Funded in some scenarios: Buckhead CID Americans with Disabilities Act sidewalk repairs; Buckhead Village sidewalks; Lindbergh Way resurfacing; Moores Mill Road/West Wesley Road intersection; Road/Phipps Boulevard roundabout. (Two related Moores Mill/West Wesley projects are on the list in different places, with one “capacity” project shown as not funded in any scenario, and one “traffic signals and school zone beacons” project shown as funded in two scenarios, “Complete Streets” and “Foundational Investments.” According to Councilmember Matzigkeit’s office, despite appearing separately on the list, they are both considered one project, which is the one that would be funded under the two scenarios.)

Not funded in any scenario: Blue Heron Blueway Trail; Buckhead Smart Corridor Lighting; Roswell Road scoping and engineering studies; Chastain Park area pedestrian and safety improvements; Howell Mill Road/Collier Road traffic beacon project; Moores Mill Road/Howell Mill Road intersection and traffic beacon projects; Peachtree Street/Road “Complete Streets”; South Fork Conservancy/PATH400 Confluence Bridge; West Wieuca Road/Roswell Road intersection improvements.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the Moores Mill Road/West Wesley Road intersection project was not funded under any scenario.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.