Greetings and Thanks for Visiting.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Braves Move North. Will Traffic Nightmare Follow?

On Monday morning November 11th 2013, Atlantans were greeted by the news that the Braves, Atlanta's iconic baseball team, will leave Turner Field when their lease ends in 2016 and will move into a new stadium in Cobb County in time for the 2017 season. The announcement left many questions in its wake and social media and news outlets quickly became a cornucopia of commentary ranging from jubilant acceptance to vitriolic criticism.

But as the day and week wore on, and as the shock that followed Braves President John Schuerholz's press conference wore off, it became evident that the club's decision will have a much broader impact on the city which goes beyond the zip code the team will call home.

To their credit, the Braves PR team launched a new website, www.homeofthebraves.com, to provide a central place where fans and interested parties can go to get the organizations stance on the matter. The website is comprehensive and does an excellent job answering why they think moving is a great idea. As Max Blau of Creative Loafing puts it, the website "sums [the Braves’] rationale up in one paragraph:"

The reason for moving is simple. The current location has certain issues that are insurmountable and will only become more problematic over the years. These fundamental issues involve how you, our fans, access Turner Field. There is a lack of consistent mass transportation, a lack of sufficient parking and a lack of direct access to interstates. Furthermore, the Braves do not have control over the development of our immediate surroundings[1][2].

Therefore the answer to the Brave's predicament, the website argues, is to move closer to the geographic center of the team's fan base. Their evidence: a map showing ticket sales for the 2102 season that paints Atlanta’s north suburbs in a sea of red, clearly delineating the heart of Braves Country.

Last Season's Ticket Sales
[Image Source: HomeOfTheBraves.com]

Shortly thereafter, politicians and special interests began quibbling over key concerns. Is the move truly a “done deal?” Can Braves be enticed to stay Downtown? Are the Braves and the city betraying a promise of revitalization made to the folks living in the neighborhoods around Turner Field, a promise that has yet to materialize? How much will Cobb taxpayers be on the hook with this move? But, one common concern seems to haunt the minds of Atlantans regardless of the positions they take. Traffic.

It is no secret that traffic on the Northside Perimeter is a nightmare on a good day, especially near where Interstates 75 and 285 meet, the very same area where the proposed stadium is to be built. So, what happens to everyone’s commute when you build at its crux a 60-acre mixed-used development with a 42,000-seat stadium as it’s main attraction?


Proposed Site Layout
[Image Source: HomeOfTheBraves.com]


“We’re taking a wait and see approach.” Natalie Dale, a spokesperson at the Georgia DOT told me in a phone conversation Tuesday morning. See explained that since the announcement was on Veterans Day when GDOT was closed, they only just started to look into how their projects will be impacted. “But,” she says, “we don’t foresee this affecting any of our plans at this time.” She went on to say that the planned managed lanes along the Northwest Corridor and the variable speed limits for the north side of I-285 which is set to take effect in the summer of 2014 will easily handle the increase in traffic.

But what about mass transit? A MARTA representative I spoke to said they too are taking a “wait and see” approach. For its part, MARTA can’t just decide and set roots and rails into the Northwest Corridor, even if they wanted to or if it were for the benefit of the people. “Our Charter prevents us from just going into a county. We have to be invited in,” he said. Cobb County residents must vote in referendum to bring MARTA into the county.

Opinions on MARTA vary as wildly as they do about the Braves’ move.

“A referendum to approve MARTA would mean a one percent permanent sales tax,” Cobb County Taxpayers Association (CCTA) president Lance Lamberton said to me in a phone call. Citing MARTA’s record and public sentiments, Lamberton called MARTA inefficient and poorly managed. Still he worries that the increase in traffic will create a public demand for MARTA, a prospect he calls a boondoggle. CCTA’s main concern, according to Lamberton, is to make sure that residents are not left with the tax bill to for the development.

When asked whether or not he would vote for MARTA even if means more taxes, Cobb County resident Gary Hemrick nodded vigorously and said: “Oh, yeah! Shoot! Yeah!” He said he probably would have gone to more games this past season had their already been a MARTA line from Cobb to Atlanta. “I live about three miles from there where they’re building it so it’ll be nice being really close.”

Braves fan Oscar Gomez, however, was leery of a MARTA presence, citing the same concerns as Lamberton. Regardless, he is also excited about the new stadium. “I work right down the street from the site and live 20 minutes through it and I absolutely love the move. Will traffic suck? Yes! But will I make it to more Braves games and have fun rooting this team to victory, absolutely. I love the move, I love this team and I love the idea of BBQ and tailgates after work,” he wrote in response to one of my Facebook post soliciting opinions.

Meanwhile, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, resigned to the lost of the Braves, seems to push for regionalism, a perspective that would mean a rail option that bridges the 12-mile gap between Atlanta and the Northwest suburbs. That is a position that doesn’t sit well with Joe Dendy, chairman of the Cobb County GOP, who is quoted as saying: “It is absolutely necessary the solution is all about moving cars in and around Cobb and surrounding counties from our north… and not moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta” [3].

Until the MARTA question is resolved, many of the traffic solutions will fall on the shoulders of Cobb County DOT, who told Atlanta’s WSB that they have several projects in the pipeline for improving traffic in the area [4]. Among these include possibly diverting Cobb commuter traffic away from the Windy Ridge-Circle 75 area where the stadium will be located. Cobb DOT also highlighted a diverging diamond interchange for Windy Ridge Road at I-75 which is set to open in 2017, the same year the Braves will begin their tenure at the new stadium. Proposals for shuttle services and a pedestrian bridge are also in the works [5]. My phone calls to Cobb County DOT for more insight into their plans were not returned in time for publication.

I contacted Joe Sorenson,  Communications Director at the Gwinnett County government, to see if they could shed some light on the kind of challenges a county might face bringing in a baseball team into the county. In 2009, the Richmond Braves, a professional minor league team and the Atlanta Braves’ Triple-A Affiliate, moved to 10,000-seat Cool-Ray field in Buford, Ga., becoming the Gwinnett Braves. “It’s really apples and oranges,” Sorenson said. “A minor league team won’t have the draw that the Braves will.” The town—which is about 20 miles up the Northeast Corridor and is host to the Mall of Georgia—saw some traffic delays the first day, he said, but the county quickly adapted. However, without figures in front of him, he said he couldn’t tell me how much of the reduction in congestion in the area had to do with traffic improvements and how much was due to the lost of novelty of having a minor league team in the area.

But I doubt the Atlanta Braves will have to worry about that prospect.