Angelia Parham has been Sandy Springs, Ga.'s Public Works Director for just two years, and in that time, she has begun to sculpt the physical transformations that the new city's elected officials and residents have wanted for decades. In the traffic-swamped Atlanta metropolitan area, congestion is a major irritant for residents. So, task No. 1 for Parham has been easing drivers' pain.

Sandy Springs incorporated in December 2005 with 98,000 residents, and Parham, former interim director of nearby Roswell, Ga.'s Transportation Department, was hired to head up its Public Works Department in April 2006. Sandy Springs contracts with Englewood, Colo.-based CH2M HILL OMI to perform all city services, except police and fire, so Parham became the company's employee. “The chance to try creative things and more effective things that we don't always get to do at other places was very attractive,” Parham says. “Starting at the ground up and getting to build something new — you just don't get many opportunities to do that.”

On her desk the first day was a daunting to-do list:

  • 356 miles of aging roads needed inspection and repairs;
  • 120 traffic signals needed maintenance, upgrades and retiming;
  • 100 miles of sidewalks needed maintenance;
  • 22 bridges needed inspections and maintenance; and
  • 8,000 drainage ditches, culverts and storm drains needed inspection.

She set out a plan to organize the department into 12 programs, including capital improvements, pavement management, traffic services management, construction management, and stormwater management. Each program got a business plan and a lead staff member. Then, subcontractors were hired and assigned tasks, inspectors began identifying priority repairs, and traffic signals on the city's major roads were retimed. “The first initial priority was maintenance, because there was an extreme lack of maintenance on pothole patching and traffic signals,” Parham says. “In the first six months, we did 300 work orders just on traffic signals.” On one road, a study found that the signal adjustments saved residents more than $11 million in travel time and fuel costs.

Over the last year, infrastructure maintenance has continued with repaving and restriping projects to ease cars' passage through the city without major construction. “A lot of the major transportation projects we have with federal and state funding take quite a while to complete,” Parham says. “These are simple things like adding turn lanes, or putting back plates on signals so you can see the signal better. Just looking at small ways — maybe you can just restripe something with the same pavement, or you can squeeze in a turn lane — can make things work much better without a huge expenditure.”

In the last year, the department also:

  • Cleaned 1,800 catch basins and drainage structures;
  • Installed 300 traffic signs;
  • Completed 1,076 traffic signal work orders;
  • Replaced more than 300 traffic signal bulbs with LEDs;
  • Installed more than 2,000 tons of asphalt for road repairs;
  • Striped 25 miles of road; and
  • Replaced or repaired 98 vehicle loop detectors.

Technology, like GIS, has helped Parham's 22 staff members and numerous subcontractors communicate activities, organize tasks and track their progress. In 2007, the department completed 6,579 work orders, compared to 3,963 in 2006. And, 196 of the work orders were highest priority requests, to which the department must respond within 24 hours, and 98 percent of them met the response requirement. “We actually get quite a few thank you notes and calls, which is not common,” she says.

Parham credits the department's creative, motivated staff and supportive city council for the progress that has been made in the city so far. “I've never had anybody here say, ‘That's not my job,’” she says. “Everybody wants to do things right and do a good job, and they'll do whatever it takes whether it's their direct responsibility or not. Having that kind of camaraderie, you can take on anything.”
Lindsay Isaacs is managing editor for American City & County.