By Howard Shook
Virtually all American cities and towns have swelling lists of core infrastructure needs that grow more acute by the day.
In the 1980s, when many traditional federal funding programs began to dry up, local governments found it easiest to kick that can down the road. Twenty-five years later, the Great Recession ushered in a prolonged revenue drought that added an exclamation point to the problem, and although in Washington both major political parties supported massive spending in order to “prime the pump,” for the most part bridges, roads, sidewalks, storm water, drinking water, and sanitary sewer systems continued to decay.
Here in Atlanta, the federal court order to fix our sanitary sewer system has resulted in an expensive, but state-of-the-art, overhaul. Not surprisingly, it also provoked a strong political impulse to spare Atlantans from additional financial burdens.
As no good deed goes unpunished, the city is now yet further behind on many of the other key elements of its infrastructure.
To his credit, Mayor Kasim Reed has stepped up to confront this dilemma. He proposes to let the voters decide whether to approve a $250 million bond deal that could significantly improve the lives of all who live, work and play here. Moreover, he plans to pay off the bonds using savings identified by his blue-ribbon Commission of Waste and Efficiency, which I was honored to co-chair, along with Delta Air Line’s Richard Anderson.
For a referendum to succeed, the need to equitably spread the public benefits is both a moral and political imperative.
The public’s first glance at the draft project list may be troubling in that regard. For example, of the $350 million total, only approximately $2.5 million is allocated for specific projects in the 7th Council District, which includes most of Buckhead. This doesn’t even rise to the level of a rounding error.
Anyone forced to cope with our traffic knows that Buckhead’s screaming infrastructure need is our transportation system. I hope we will have the opportunity to begin addressing the dozens of previously identified projects that will ease our epic — and growing — congestion problems that, if ignored, will soon form a tangible threat to our health, safety and welfare.
Aside from the composition of the list itself, there are three critical financial issues that should be addressed in order to gain the support of voters:
1. A creditable assessment of Atlanta’s debt capacity must be conducted (which many council members, including this writer, have co-sponsored legislation to require);
2. Legislation must be adopted ensuring that the repayment revenue comes from inviolate, legitimate efficiency “savings”;
3. To avoid taking out a 30-year note to pay for projects with 10-year life-spans, we should examine the wisdom of breaking up the bond issues into more appropriately-sized packages.
Atlanta’s last major bond referendum was 15 years ago. It was overwhelmingly supported throughout the city because the benefits were seen as logical, affordable, and touched everyone — attributes that will be no less critical in 2015.
Howard Shook represents District 7 on the Atlanta City Council.