Mayor Andre Dickens’ proposed 2024 city of Atlanta general fund budget made headlines for its hefty $790 million price tag—the largest in city history.
But some officials and transit advocates are alarmed at what appears to be missing from Dickens’ menu: a bigger operating budget for the Atlanta Department of Transportation (ATLDOT), which was created in 2019. Instead, the draft budget calls for only $50.4 million for ATLDOT—a $7.1 million cut from the current fiscal year.
“When I saw [that figure], I said, ‘Hey, wait a minute,’ and I circled it,” said Atlanta City Council President Doug Shipman. “There are a lot of residents who want to see things happen on the ground this year. They’ve voted multiple times to tax themselves and to see projects happen.”
Meanwhile, Propel ATL executive director Rebecca Serna told Atlanta Civic Circle that Atlanta’s bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group has also flagged the cut in transit funding with Dickens’ office. “We have the largest budget in city history and a huge surplus, and this is a department that the mayor himself created,” said Serna, referring to Dickens’ tenure as a city councilmember before becoming mayor in 2022. “We think [transit] needs a pretty substantial increase, not a decrease.”
DeJon Tebought, who chairs the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association’s transportation committee, said the city should address a significant backlog of vital street improvement projects downtown, which include transforming Peachtree Street between Alabama Street and Trinity Street with wider sidewalks, plantings, seating and accessibility ramps, and converting Baker Street to a two-way street from Piedmont Avenue south to Centennial Olympic Park Drive, plus more general sidewalk repairs and bike lane additions.
“We want to make sure we’re getting safer, more pleasant streets and that people can get around downtown on all modes of transportation,” said Tebought. “They need to make sure they’re doing projects and not just talking about them.”
The mayor’s office and ATLDOT did not respond to a request for comment. But during a May 3 budget hearing, Atlanta Chief Financial Officer Mohamed Balla told the city council that the proposed $50.4 million budget for ATLDOT was just one bucket in the “total arsenal” of local transit spending, along with a $750 million Moving Atlanta Forward transportation infrastructure package made up of $350 million in TSPLOST funds from the half-penny sales tax that voters approved in 2016 and $400 million from two bond issues.
“The initial response [from the mayor’s office] was: We are spending money from three different buckets, and you have to look at [transit funding] as a whole,” said Shipman. “I’m not saying I’m convinced of that, but that’s the initial explanation.”
Councilmember Amir Farokhi, who chairs the city’s transportation committee, said he’s also concerned about the ATLDOT budget but won’t comment further until after meeting with city officials.
In February, Farokhi and other council members acknowledged that Atlanta’s many scheduled transportation improvement projects had an execution problem. Some of the delays are from a lack of staffing for project management. Serna noted that the proposed 2024 city budget lists 91 unfilled transportation positions–but 80 are unfunded. “We need to be staffed at a higher level if we’re going to deliver on capital improvements,” said Serna.
Shipman noted that transit project managers are in short supply since President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill was passed in late 2021. “There’s a lot of demand for project managers across the country. When I talk to other folks in the private sector—they’re dealing with the same issue. Everyone is already full,” he said.
Transportation as public safety
The proposed $50.4 million in funding to ATLDOT for FY24 makes up 6.4% of the city’s $790 million general fund budget proposal, which is down from $57.5 million for FY23. The largest line item, for personnel, is almost unchanged at $25.2 million, while the amount for supplies increases slightly to $13.4 million. Other budgeted expenses also remain roughly the same; what’s different is a $7.4 million decrease in the line item for “other financing uses” to $7.3 million for FY 2024.
Almost a third of Dickens’ general fund budget or $247.4 million, will go to the Atlanta Police Department, which is a 5% increase. The Atlanta Fire Department will receive $109 million, a 1% increase. During Monday’s city council meeting, the council also introduced an ordinance to amend the current year’s budget to allocate $30 million for the controversial Public Safety Training Center, which hundreds of residents spoke out against over more than seven hours of public comment.
But advocates say transportation is also a public safety concern. Analyzing CDC data, a May 17 Wall Street Journal study found that traffic accidents were the top cause of death for Americans under 20 and have increased sharply in the past half-decade. “Traffic fatalities have gone up in Atlanta and throughout the state, and I think we’re going to see that increase despite Vision Zero policies,” said Serna.
The city council started implementing its Atlanta Vision Zero Action Plan–which is part of an international movement to eliminate traffic deaths and injuries through safer street design and vehicle speed management–in October 2022 after endorsing it in 2020.. The council is expected to adopt a final Vision Zero plan in October in an attempt to address traffic collisions, which have spiked since 2017, and Atlanta’s pedestrian fatality rate, which is three times higher than for other large U.S. cities such as Seattle, Minneapolis, and Boston.
During the Atlanta budget’s draft phase, the city council holds briefings for each department being funded. The briefing for the ATLDOT’s FY24 budget appropriation is scheduled for 2-3 p.m. on Thursday, May 17. The city council must approve the budget by June 20, and then it goes to the mayor for his signature by June 28.
You can watch the departmental budget briefings at the Atlanta City Council’s Facebook page .