Atlanta’s potholes are out of control. Could a new city department of transportation finally fix them?

The proposed department, announced today by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, would act as a “one-stop shop” that would combine the construction duties of three different city departments

Atlanta Department of transportation
Downtown Atlanta

Photograph by Lisa-Blue via iStock / Getty Images Plus

There’s a lot of blame to spread around for the poor state of Atlanta’s roads, streetscapes, and bike lanes. Lack of funding plays a role. Heavy use by suburban commuters during the workweek, increasing the daytime population by hundreds of thousands of people, is also a culprit. But another reason why our potholes get deeper and our sidewalks trip people up is there are too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to what gets built where, when, and with what cash. Frankly, the kitchen needs a chef.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is announcing this morning that the city, for the first time in its history, could create a Department of Transportation that would act as a “one-stop shop” to combine the construction duties of three different city departments—all of which are currently tasked with maintaining and improving Atlanta’s transportation network in their own ways—“to better deliver Atlanta’s mobility future.” The department would provide a unified vision and planning for Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure. The initiative would require approval by the Atlanta City Council.

“One of the frustration points I had as a councilmember was internally not knowing which department was responsible for what,” Bottoms says. “If I had that challenge, then I know what frustration was reaped upon the public. It makes sense. I think it’s going to be an efficient way for us to deliver to communities in a way that’s tangible.”

Long pushed by transportation advocates, studied by members of the Atlanta City Council, and championed by Councilmembers Andre Dickens and Matt Westmoreland, the initiative would put Atlanta on the same level as major cities like New York and Chicago and fast-growing cities like Oakland, all of which put all their transportation planning and construction under one agency.

The Atlanta Regional Commission estimates that metro Atlanta could add more than 2.5 million people by 2040. The city has projected that Atlanta itself could see a significant share of that growth. “When you look at the cities that [also have that projection], they all have this,” says Jacob Tzegaegbe, Bottoms’s senior transportation policy adviser. “We can’t grow the city with three departments [that don’t share] one vision as to where you want to go.”

Currently, the job of making sure potholes are filled, bike lanes are striped, and sidewalks are fixed is spread across three different City Hall agencies: the department of public works, the city planning department, and Renew ATL, an agency created to oversee a $250 million bond voters approved in 2015 to chip away at the city’s nearly $1 billion backlog of needed repairs to its transportation network. That diffusion of responsibility and authority can be a recipe for dysfunction.

“One of the major things that I heard when I first came on board was the number of opportunities that were missed because of the silos the departments operated in,” says Joshua Williams, the city’s deputy chief operating officer, who came on-board in August 2018. “There was no synergy and no proper coordination between all three of them, which led to challenges delivering services to residents.”

Say, for example, that the Department of Public Works repaves a street. A few months later, the Department of Watershed Management comes out and rips up the cured concrete and replaces a corroded sewer line. Then, a year later, city crews return to repave the street because it was on a list of projects to be repaved and restriped to include a bike lane.

Under a city DOT, Williams says, a single agency would also be able to take a big-picture look at projects—being able to make the call on adding a protected bike lane or finding another safer route—and better time projects to save money and resident headaches.

Rebecca Serna, the executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, says a “department dedicated to how people want—and need—to use our city’s streets would be a major step toward fulfilling the city’s vision of a transportation network built on safety, equity, and mobility.”

“Mayor Bottoms’s administration correctly identified the long-standing problems with how the city delivers and maintains transportation projects as a hindrance,” Serna says. “She promised to change it when she was running for mayor, and now she’s keeping that promise.”

Darin Givens, a writer and member of Thread ATL, an advocate for smarter transportation and planning in the city, says the department could “plan in a comprehensive way so that we can work towards a multi-modal future—one where different ways of getting around the city complement each other instead of conflicting.” But, he adds, it’s important the person selected to lead the new department “be a visionary who helps design the city, not a traffic engineer. We need someone who understands sidewalks are just as important as car lanes, that streets are the most important public space we’ve got, and that civic engagement can be a good chance for helping residents embrace good urbanism.”

Williams says the team does not anticipate any job cuts as a result of the new agency. He says it will examine “needs and requirements” to make sure the department has the resources and funding it needs. Williams estimates a 12- to 18-month process to build the DOT, including a national search for a transportation commissioner with vision and technical experience.

“This is smarter government,” Williams says. “A way to provide better quality, at reduced costs, at high levels of efficiency.”