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What the coronavirus pandemic means for Atlanta transportation infrastructure projects

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On the bright side, reduced traffic has been a godsend for projects already under construction, the city’s transportation czar says

a rendering shows a possible reworking of DeKalb Avenue.
DeKalb Avenue’s “complete street” makeover appears to finally be on the horizon.
Kronberg Wall

With the global pandemic altering the way Atlantans live and work, many city projects large and small have been shoved to the back-burner.

But with travel at a record low, might this be an opportune time to move forward with transportation infrastructure improvements—if it’s safe for workers?

Atlanta’s new Department of Transportation commissioner Josh Rowan says the city is indeed moving forward with a number of public works projects as most Atlantans are stuck indoors.

“The pandemic has changed many of our operational processes in order to guard the safety and health of our team members, but we remain fully operational,” Rowan told Curbed Atlanta via email this week.

In Southwest Atlanta, for example, Childress Drive is being paved and should have a bridge open next week, he said.

Throughout April, Rowan said, his crews will be repairing damaged sections of Cascade Road. Next, they’ll likely head to 10th Street.

On the Westside, the restoration of Sunset Avenue, which cuts through English Avenue and Vine City, should wrap up this week—“in half the time anticipated,” the commissioner said.

Whereas resurfacing would usually require traffic mitigation efforts to keep a clear work site, Rowan waived the traffic restrictions for such projects, and the decrease in travel has allowed crews to work for 12 hours a day, six days a week.

“The reduced traffic has been a tremendous benefit for projects that are already in construction,” Rowan said, in reference to Renew Atlanta bond projects in the pipeline. “We are seeing a near doubling of productivity.”

Developments that were in pre-construction phases, though, haven’t been fast-tracked, since the city’s permitting, planning, and engineering teams are largely working remotely.

Nevertheless, those efforts are progressing, too, Rowan said.

“We continue with project design, right of way acquisition, and utility coordination for major projects, such as complete streets on Cascade, Howell Mill, and Fairburn [roads],” he said.

“Lastly, we are finalizing DeKalb Avenue,” Rowan added, nodding to arguably the most anticipated transportation improvement project in the city, outside of Beltline construction.

Social media posts have called on Rowan’s department to take advantage of the transportation lull to press on with additional improvements, such as needed sidewalk fixes.

But more breathing room for construction crews doesn’t necessarily mean there’s more money in the city’s budget this fiscal year.

“So, the notion of ‘extra’ work sounds good, but it’s not budgeted,” Rowan said. “We continue to push the existing projects in our transportation program, which are moving rapidly.”

Additionally, the novel coronavirus’s impact on the Renew Atlanta budget—the program is funded by sales taxes, after all—is uncertain, as shops and restaurants have shut their doors, essentially closing the spigot.

Rowan said it’s too soon to say what the updated budget—or project list—might look like.

“We regularly run sales tax revenue projection scenarios, including one that is quite pessimistic,” he said. “The FY20 Q4 numbers will tell us a lot about the revenue impacts.”