On a Buckhead corner across the street from a rehabilitation hospital, James Curtis cautiously piloted his wheelchair on a strip of sidewalk only a couple of inches wider than its wheels. To his right, cracked and pitted asphalt patching was a hazard; to his left, a fresh, rectangular pit yawned open where the Georgia Department of Transportation controversially planted a new power pole within the sidewalk.

“It’s like rolling the plank,” Curtis said. “One false move and, bang, I could fall right over.”

James Curtis attempts to pilot his wheelchair between broken asphalt and a hole in the sidewalk created for a new power pole near the corner of Peachtree Road and Brookwood Valley Circle. Georgia Power Co. says the sidewalk will be repaired soon. (John Ruch)

Curtis made it through safely as pedestrians crossed through a private yard to get around him and the pole. But the danger of the physical gap is just the latest example of a communications gap in Buckhead street and sidewalk conditions – GDOT and the city of Atlanta working on different timelines or pointing fingers at each other.

The city did not respond to questions about the new poles, which started going up on Peachtree Road in February, or about the holes Curtis pointed out at Peachtree and Brookwood Valley Circle. Katie Howard, chief of staff to City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit, said the Department of Public Works told her GDOT and the city are “working on an agreement to address the sidewalk needs in this area.”

Curtis says city officials told him it could take another six months to fill the new hole. GDOT referred the Reporter’s questions to Georgia Power Co., which responded by saying repairs to the problem pointed out by Curtis would begin shortly.

Georgia Power spokesperson John Kraft said in a written statement May 30 that some of the damage noted by Curtis existed before the new pole installation. But, he added, “…however, we plan to repair and expand that sidewalk as well as the adjacent section around our new pole. Temporary repairs to a washed-out spot were made this week, with permanent repairs beginning next week.”

The sidewalk conditions around the new power pole at Peachtree Road and Brookwood Valley Circle. (John Ruch)

Curtis says he’s seen repairs take a lot longer than that. He’s a plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging the city is violating a 10-year-old federal consent decree about complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act for broken pavement, signs placed within sidewalks, and similar issues that the placement of power poles in the path also raise. Those repairs also frequently fall into jurisdictional disputes between the city and GDOT, which operates Peachtree as a state route, officials have previously said.

Other Buckhead infrastructure has been affected as well. The streetlights at Buford Highway and Sidney Marcus Boulevard have been out for half a decade due to a city-GDOT responsibility dispute that officials say is in a resolution phase. PATH400’s Gordon C. Bynum Jr. Pedestrian Bridge had its streetlights turned off by Georgia Power in April after GDOT forgot to pay the bill, according to the Buckhead Community Improvement District and City Councilmember Howard Shook’s office.

GDOT spokesperson Natalie Dale said that, in an usual situation, the agency has been paying 18 separate power bills in the Ga. 400 area and made an error that left unpaid the bill for the Bynum Bridge. GDOT has paid the bill and is working to consolidate the 18 bills into one, she said, adding, “There should not be any issues moving forward.”

Holes or no holes, the new Peachtree power poles already sparked their own controversy in a tension between vehicle driver safety and pedestrian safety.

In what GDOT calls its “Clear Roadside Project,” the agency and Georgia Power are relocating power poles from the curbside to behind – or within – the sidewalk. The work affects about 100 poles along Peachtree and Roswell roads between Midtown and Sandy Springs.

The new Georgia Power poles along Peachtree Road are inserted within the existing sidewalk. (John Ruch)

The idea is reduce crashes caused when drivers run vehicles into streetside poles. Critics, like the pedestrian advocacy group PEDS Atlanta, say that means out-of-control drivers are more likely to hit human beings instead, and that the lack of roadside obstacles will encourage higher-speed driving as well. Poles erected within the sidewalk also raise concerns about reducing pedestrian right of way.

“GDOT’s philosophy behind moving the poles is sickening,” said Sally Flocks, president and CEO of PEDS, in an email. “The purpose is to provide ‘correction’ space if someone falls asleep or is distracted while driving.”

In a February email provided by Flocks, Kathy Zahul, an engineer for GDOT’s metro-area District 7, said that crash data shows a need to move the poles.

“There were 12 ‘run off road, strike utility pole’ crashes in this segment of roadway between 2010 and 2014 alone,” Zahul wrote. “Four of those crashes resulted in serious injuries, and one in death. This segment ranked fourth statewide and third in District 7 for this type of crash.”

The placement of poles within the sidewalk on Peachtree near the Shepherd Center, a rehab hospital for people with spine and brain injuries, is controversial as well. Zahul wrote that the pole placement would meet ADA requirements. Flocks said that a 36-inch-wide passage will meet the ADA, but 48 inches is a modern, if still unofficial, standard for wheelchair accessibility. She said she has not measured any of the pole-affected sidewalks.

“Georgia Power has committed to making sidewalk repairs around our relocated poles to ensure ADA compliance, and also agreed at the start of the Clear Roadside project to making several other sidewalk improvements as part of the overall project,” said Kraft.

There also was confusion about the plan for that part of Peachtree. Zahul originally told Flocks and other advocates that poles would not be placed within sidewalks there, her February emails show, then apologized for a misunderstanding and said they would be after all.

The existing power poles along Peachtree Road as they appeared in a 2018 Google Maps image.

Shepherd Center spokesperson Jane Sanders said the hospital had been notified about the pole relocation and possible short-term traffic impacts, “but not the specific placements on the sidewalks. We will look into it further to see if there is an issue we want to address.”

The hospital has made some previous complaints about sidewalk conditions. Curtis is a volunteer at the hospital, but emphasized he was speaking only for himself on the power pole issue.

Curtis said he’s had some top city officials visit Peachtree Road with him to see the poles and other conditions, including City Planning Commissioner Tim Keane and Josh Rowan, manager of the Renew Atlanta bond and TSPLOST program. He said the officials’ comments were good, but that conditions still aren’t.

“I just want to be able to get around my city safely,” Curtis said.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.