Why Atlanta’s roads have so many damn metal plates

Everything you wanted to know about the steel slabs covering our dismal roads

Metal plates covering potholes on Currier Street, Atlanta
Currier Street, Atlanta

Photograph by John E. McDonald

They damage your suspension, rattle your spine, and make Atlanta streets look like war zones. Behold the metal plate, the land mine of our roads, a commuter’s nemesis, and an easy answer to every blemish in the public right-of-way. In 2017, a Grant Park couple threw a tongue-in-cheek birthday party for the metal plate that had sat on their street for a year. (City crews picked it up shortly afterward.) Why do Atlanta roads seem to be just as much steel as they are asphalt? Allow us to explain.

Why, dammit, why?
When road crews want to cover up potholes, construction work, and utility repairs on our already pockmarked streets, metal plates are the go-to patch until concrete pours or hardens (or workers find the time to actually fix the problem). Currently, according to the city, roughly 150 metal plates of various sizes—most measure six-by-six feet and weigh more than 2,000 pounds—cover up cuts to Atlanta’s roadways, providing motorists and bicyclists with a disruptive ka-clunk on their commutes. That total doesn’t include an ever-changing number of plates approved by the Georgia Department of Transportation on state-maintained streets like Ponce de Leon Avenue or Northside Drive.

Is there a method to this madness?
Kind of. Supplied by Savannah-based Chatham Steel, most of the plates on city streets are used by the Department of Watershed Management to cover up cuts crews make in the street. Others are dropped in place by private contractors, who must get city approval and remove them no more than five days after work is completed. Companies are supposed to have tracking numbers and formal designations on their plates; for example, “GPC” is Georgia Power Company and “BST” is AT&T—apparently a holdover from the company’s former days as BellSouth. Failure to pick up plates in a timely manner can result in a paltry $100 fine from the city.

Does the city actually enforce violations?
Local TV newscasts are filled with residents grumbling about plates left in place for months or even more than a year. Eight years ago, the city auditor said the public works department lacked the proper enforcement processes and failed to ensure plates were properly secured to stay in place—and that the city had paid out $218,000 in damages in 2010 over potholes, street cuts, and plates. Things have improved; the city paid out an estimated $20,000 in settlement claims related to plates in the past three years. But it also rejects a large number of claims because City Hall lawyers assert Atlanta’s not at fault.

What can I do about this?
If you find your car nose-first in a utility cut, you can submit a claim with the city’s legal department. If a metal plate has been lingering for so long it’s eligible for membership in your neighborhood association, report it via the city’s 311 app (or atl311.com). And if you’re interested in avoiding plates, the city has a map that charts where some of them are installed. Just Google “Atlanta Metal Plate View.”

This article appears in our December 2019 issue.