The announcement the Atlanta Braves are abandoning Turner Field in downtown Atlanta for a location in the suburbs was a shock to almost everybody. There are many questions that must be answered, most important among them being how much of the $302 million in “public” funding will come from Cobb County taxpayers.
Assuming the Braves do move to Cobb, the county and the Braves will have to tackle the traffic nightmare that is I-285 and I-75. The Braves were unhappy with Turner Field, in part, because of insufficient nearby parking and poor freeway access. Congested traffic was the No. 1 reason fans did not attend games. And while leaving the heart of Atlanta and nearby MARTA access may seem counterintuitive, just 6 percent of fans arrived via MARTA, according to the Braves.
Unlike the Falcons and the Hawks whose stadiums sit between two MARTA stations, the Braves were cut off from MARTA by the I-75/I-85 connector and I-20. Taking MARTA rail not only required taking a train with long headways (time between trains) but also transferring to a connecting shuttle, a transfer most fans chose not to make.
Cobb County officials propose circulating trams to connect parking areas with the stadium and pedestrian bridges. Area residents have suggested a connector to Terrell Mill Road. These ideas are a good start but they are not nearly enough. Some are likely to agree with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed that rail should be extended to Cobb County. But rail would not fix the transportation problems.
First, the quickest and most direct route up I-75 from the Arts Center station travels through Buckhead, whose residents’ vigorous opposition to any rail extension has helped kill two rail expansions. The alternative rail route would include a 12-mile route passing through numerous west Atlanta neighborhoods before it runs parallel to right-of-way-challenged I-285 between Atlanta Road and Cumberland. This somewhat circuitous route from the Arts Center, while more realistic, would cost more than $2 billion to build.
Second, the reality is that most Braves fans live in the “northern arc” — the semicircle of land stretching from Marietta to Roswell to Duluth. Adding a new light-rail line up I-75 or I-285 west will not serve any of them. Nor will it serve many of the other locations where fans are concentrated, from Cumming to Peachtree City.
So how do policy-makers prevent the area around I-75 and I-285 from becoming completely gridlocked when the Braves play? Assuming the Atlanta Regional Commission approves the development, funding projects in this area should be a priority. If additional funds are needed, the state should dedicate the fourth penny of the transportation sales tax, which currently goes to the general fund, to this and other transportation projects around the state. Cobb should also consider shifting some of the money it is paying for the stadium into transportation solutions that have a broader public benefit. And the state and county should ask the Braves organization to contribute funding.
The county is considering a dedicated ramp from I-75’s express lanes to the stadium. Far more is needed. The area’s top priority should be reprioritizing the construction of its managed lanes and adding two reversible managed lanes to I-285 from I-20 West to I-85 North. Managed lanes are critical because they help not only highways but transit as well.
Currently, the state lacks the resources to build managed lanes on I-285. The section along I-285 from I-75 to I-85 has been delayed indefinitely and the section from I-20 West to I-75 has been reduced to using reversible shoulder lanes. Such half-hearted solutions will not significantly reduce congestion. Further, the freeway interchanges in the area will have to be improved to deal with the influx of vehicles.
Even with potential additional public funding, public-private partnerships are needed to build the managed lanes and improve the freeway interchanges. PPPs have been used throughout the country. They expedite projects, protect taxpayers from unexpected construction cost increases and could provide approximately 20 percent more resources to build and maintain the managed lanes than using public sector funds alone.
Local roads must also be improved. This includes a likely widening of U.S. 41 to six lanes from south of Windy Hill Road to the South Loop and the use of intelligent transportation system improvements to extend traffic light signals along major corridors and reduce congestion around game time.
This also includes improving arterial roads. Despite numerous recommendations over the past 30 years, Atlanta continues to neglect the backbone of its transportation network. Fans in the northern arc from Gwinnett County to Cobb County need more than just I-285 to reach the Braves. Building a new, high-quality arterial road from Marietta to Roswell to Norcross using the existing Highway 120 and Highway 140 would prevent total gridlock.
Transit has to be part of the solution, but the transit must actually transport fans from their county of residence. The best scenario is a system of bus rapid transit (BRT) and express buses that uses managed lanes. BRT on the freeways can use the managed lanes as virtual guideways to provide congestion-free travel. Cobb County is already pursuing a BRT system on Cobb Parkway. The grade-separated system proposed is unnecessarily expensive; nevertheless, the county deserves some credit for moving beyond the rail mindset.
Express buses and shuttles can take advantage of large parking lots that are underutilized at local malls, business parks and other developments. The shuttles could operate from three hours before game time until three hours after the game ends. Unlike BRT and Express Bus service, shuttle routes would run only during scheduled game days.
Before the Braves move to Cobb, the state and county must move on a number of transportation improvements. The Braves’ move could benefit the region if it serves as a catalyst for metro Atlanta to address its major traffic bottlenecks and establish a truly connected transit system.
Baruch Feigenbaum is a transportation analyst with the Reason Foundation and a Senior Fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.