Fulton County voters’ approval Nov. 8 of a transportation-project sales tax boost was a big win for the city of Sandy Springs, which aims to spend more than $100 million carrying out nine programs and projects. Major wish list items—a PATH400 trail connection, Mount Vernon Highway roundabouts, new sidewalks—can now be built.
But the vote was only the beginning, as the city must now race to start all of the projects within the 0.75 percent TSPLOST’s five-year lifespan, and to complete them within seven years. It amounts to a complex mega-project that requires hiring more city staff, competing with other Fulton cities for contractors and figuring how to keep cash flowing to projects between county tax checks, the first of which doesn’t arrive until mid-May.
“We’ve got a relatively short time to do an awful lot of projects here,” City Manager John McDonough told City Council in a TSPLOST update at its Nov. 15 meeting. “We can’t afford to sit around between now and next May.”
McDonough and other officials gave the council an overview of strategies to prepare for the TSPLOST, which takes effect April 1 and boosts the county sales tax to 7.75 percent. (The tax does not include the portion of the county within the city of Atlanta, which passed its own, separate TSPLOST for a different project list.)
The officials also gave updates on several significant TSPLOST projects, all of which lack specific timelines at this point, but now can happen sooner rather than later. The first projects to go into actual construction likely will be new sidewalks around the city by next summer, said Public Works director Garrin Coleman.
Bryant Poole, the assistant city manager for infrastructure, said the TSPLOST projects amount to a “double” of the city’s regular capital improvement program. That means more city staff members are needed in public works, community development and finance, he said. TSPLOST funds can be used for such hirings, officials said.
Asked whether enough contractors will be available to do the work as every Fulton city works on similar project lists, McDonough said, “There will be for Sandy Springs.”
Besides getting an early start, he said, the city likely will have a “cadre of pre-authorized design firms” to assign to various projects.
Public notice and input on so many projects also can be a challenge for both staff and residents. The city will launch an updated TSPLOST page on the city’s website, sandyspringsga.gov, with a project map. And it likely will hold combo meetings where several projects can be reviewed at once, in a way that makes sense, said city Communications Director Sharon Kraun.
Then there’s the question of paying for it all between TSPLOST checks. Councilmembers floated various ideas, including using general funds—an idea that led City Attorney Wendell Willard to say, “Be careful”—and different types of bonds.
McDonough said Willard, who is also a local state representative, is looking into legislation to authorize one type of bond that likely would draw political support from all north Fulton cities.
But in the meantime, the city likely will bridge the gap with reserve funds and other existing sources, McDonough said, adding the starting sum likely will be “well into the six figures.”
Some TSPLOST project updates:
This project would design and build a “missing link” between the popular multi-use trail in Buckhead and a northern extension that will be created through the Pill Hill medical center as part of the upcoming I-285/Ga. 400 interchange reconstruction.
In a separate vote Nov. 15, the council approved spending $160,000 in matching funds to move ahead with design. There is no timeframe yet, but Coleman said it likely will take a year to design and construction may line up with the I-285/Ga. 400 project, which is slated to wrap up in mid-2020.
“This is a big step for our community…This is really a monumental night tonight,” City Councilmember Andy Bauman said of authorizing a design start.
Mount Vernon roundabouts
The project to replace the Mount Vernon/Johnson Ferry intersection with dual roundabouts has been stalled due to a dispute over whether an auto repair shop in the project zone is historic.
The historic dispute matters due to requirements attached to federal funds used for the project. Poole confirmed that by using TSPLOST money for construction, “those restrictions kind of go away” and it’s “good news on our ability to move ahead.” However, there is still no specific timeframe.
The project also has been controversial for a proposed right of way expansion and possible safety impacts at the Mount Vernon Towers senior condos. City Councilmember Gabriel Sterling urged officials to meet with residents as soon as possible, especially as the city doesn’t have to be as confidential about a self-funded project. “That was driving them crazy and driving me crazy,” Sterling said of the communication difficulties.
Hammond Drive widening design
Officials again emphasized this item is about study and right of way acquisition, not actual construction, for a potential Hammond Drive widening that is controversial in its neighborhood.
“We’ll have an open, transparent opportunity for people to come in” and review the eventual traffic study and widening design, McDonough said.
TSPLOST funds will be used to hire a consultant, McDonough said, but added he expects “a lion’s share of the funds will go to protective buys and right of way acquisition.”
“Protective buys” are city purchases of houses as placeholders for the possible widening, and the city has made several already. McDonough confirmed that one of the houses, 521 Hammond, in the meantime will be rented to a police officer chosen by “auction,” according to a previously council-approved plan.
As of Jan. 1, “we’ll have one of our finest moving into that house,” McDonough said.
Perimeter Center last mile connectivity
McDonough said he expects to deliver a public presentation next month on an early version of this plan for multi-use trails—and right of way for possible alternative mass transit in the future—connecting Perimeter Center commuters to MARTA stations. Discussions are already underway with businesses about “public-private partnership,” he said.
“I think we’re well on our way to implementing this,” McDonough said.