The PATH400 trail and three significant road improvements are among the Buckhead projects that could be jeopardizing by unexpected funding shortfalls — to the tune of roughly $410 million — in the Renew Atlanta and TSPLOST programs. With a process to prioritize such projects starting up, Buckhead Community Improvement District officials say they’ll push for the city to stick to its local commitments.
At the BCID’s Nov. 28 board meeting, there were some concerns that Buckhead might get lower priority due to the neighborhood’s wealth and the CID’s self-generated tax revenue. District 7 City Councilmember and BCID board member Howard Shook said the process will be political and alluded to the notion of Buckhead seceding from Atlanta, an idea raised again by the recent unsuccessful attempt by a wealthy enclave in Stockbridge to break off into a separate city called Eagle’s Landing.
“It would have been nice if the Eagle’s Landing referendum turned out a little differently,” Shook said. “We’d have more leverage.”
BCID staff members did not weigh in on such politics, instead saying they aim to negotiate ways to keep three projects going that currently have a combined $12.8 million in funding in jeopardy. Those projects include: widening Piedmont Road between Peachtree and Lenox roads; turning the Phipps Boulevard/Wieuca Road intersection into a roundabout; and studying improvements for the intersection of Roswell, Piedmont and Habersham roads.
In addition, Livable Buckhead, which works with the BCID, has said about $5 million in funding is in jeopardy for completing the partly open PATH400 multiuse trail.
Without the money, the local projects and others citywide could be ended or delayed while other funding sources are sought.
The BCID and other self-taxing commercial districts are scheduled to meet with city officials within two weeks, BCID Executive Director Jim Durrett said.
“We actually want to talk to the city and negotiate and do some horse-trading” on ways to preserve at least some state funding in the projects, said Darion Dunn, the BCID’s planning director.
Durrett quickly added, “But listen, we’re not going in there offering stuff… I don’t want us to come in and talk about how we’re going to plug holes in the dam.”
The Mayor’s Office did not respond to questions about the BCID’s concerns.
The $12.8 million cited by BCID staff includes state money that is channeled through the city and dependent on its funding commitments. Dunn said it is possible that the BCID could retain some of the state money by leveraging the BCID’s own money as well.
David Allman, the BCID board chairman and president of the real estate firm Regent Partners, was not daunted by the $12.8 million figure, saying it “sounds like it’s pretty modest for this district… in the grand scheme of things.” But BCID officials indicated they are determined to keep the projects and their funding set in place if at all possible.
The financial bind
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 only $530 million – maybe even less.
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.
In a recent presentation to the City Council’s Transportation Committee, the city says there are a number of problems, including higher budgets and construction costs; projects that grew larger in what Durrett calls “scope creep”; and additional projects added to the programs after “stakeholder” input. Another big problem is that TSPLOST revenues so far are lower than expected, for reasons that remain not fully explained, and now estimated to total only $260 million.
The city has admitted that it failed to create a priority list of projects in either program, which is especially important in the current situation, when some of them must get the ax.
Now the city has begun a process to prioritize the projects, with public meetings to be held in December through February, and a new list finalized by March. The city is accepting public comments on the process through the Renew Atlanta website here.
Some projects are already complete, such as the TSPLOST-funded Northwest BeltLine Connector Trail, which officially opened earlier this month along Bobby Jones Golf Course. Dunn said that any projects already in the pipeline can continue with their current funding, but only at the current stage – for example, a project in the design phase could not move into construction.
Durrett said the BCID’s position on the locally affected projects is that the city should follow through on its prior commitments. Lynn Rainey, the BCID’s attorney, added that he believes the language of their legal agreements on the projects essentially prevents the city from unilaterally pulling out.
The city’s presentation to the council committee talks about working with other “funding partners,” with the BCID specifically included along with such others as MARTA, the PATH Foundation and the Georgia Department of Transportation.
Several “factors” in setting the new priorities are laid out in the presentation. They include mobility improvements; “equity and access”; the current status of the project; a project’s ability to get funding from other sources; and “stakeholder” input.
Councilmember Shook said the original programs were developed in a political way under former Mayor Kasim Reed, and he believes the priority-setting could be that way, too.
Joking about the lack of an initial priority-setting process, Shook said, “There was [one]. It was called the mayor.” He said he has heard from some council colleagues that “some districts with CIDs can just go to the end of the line” because they are viewed as already having funding of their own.
And Shook viewed the city presentation’s references to “stakeholders” as meaning insiders getting special advantage. “That’s just raw politics,” he said. “That’s people getting projects put on the list for services rendered.”
Shook said a report on the funding shortfall, expected within a few weeks from the city’s Audit Committee, should reveal more information about the situation.