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Braves bridge design changes again

Cobb County is asking engineering firms to design a double-decker bridge over Interstate 285 that would allow fans to come and go from the new Atlanta Braves stadium via a circulator bus on the top span and a pedestrian walkway on the bottom.

That’s the latest plan in the ever-evolving project — and the county still has no idea how much it will cost or how it will be funded.

But this much is clear: There is a tremendous time crunch to get it done.

The county is offering a 2 percent bonus to the design and engineering firm it selects if construction bids can be opened by October. And the Request for Proposal document issued last month says the goal is to have bridge construction completed by March 2017, or just weeks before the Braves’ first pitch in the new stadium.

IN DEPTH: Complete AJC coverage of Braves move to Cobb

The Request For Proposal was released just three months after Cobb transportation officials told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the circulator bus had been removed from the bridge design. Designing it to support a transit vehicle would be too expensive, the officials said. At the time, the 1,100-foot bridge — spanning the interstate, Galleria Drive and Circle 75 Parkway — was going to be a single span.

The AJC first reported in November that the county will be responsible for funding at least half of the bridge’s cost, despite Commission Chairman Tim Lee’s repeated assurances that no local tax money would be used for its construction. That information was revealed in an application the county submitted for the project with the Atlanta Regional Commission. The newspaper reviewed hundreds of pages of emails, reports, artist renderings and conceptual drawings for that story.

When asked what had changed over the past three months that will now allow the county to afford a double span that supports transit, Cobb Department of Transportation Director Faye DiMassimo said: “As part of the ongoing project development, and in looking at … the surrounding development and the various funding alternatives, we think this is a viable and best option to pursue.”

When asked how much the bridge would cost, DiMassimo said the county is sticking by its $9 million estimate — a figure they came up with more than a year ago — before officials decided that building a bridge to support the circulator bus would be too expensive.

DiMassimo acknowledged that the engineering firm picked to design the bridge will provide the official cost estimate for the project, and that the $9 million figure is a “conceptual” estimate.

Asked if the bridge construction cost could be higher, DiMassimo said, “potentially.”

A 290-foot enclosed pedestrian bridge over Georgia 400 cost MARTA $18.2 million to build. The final price tag after engineering was $32 million.

The RFP document says that a variety of funding is anticipated to pay for the bridge, including federal transit funds, special purpose sales tax receipts, “and/or other local funding.”

Lance Lamberton, president of the Cobb Taxpayers Association, said the information provided about the bridge so far “has more holes in it than Swiss cheese.”

Lamberton questioned Lee about the bridge at a recent town hall meeting, and said the chairman responded that the bridge was needed in the area with or without the Braves development.

“That’s amazing,” Lamberton said. “Just totally outrageous. Anybody can look at this situation and see that’s not true.”

Lee did not respond to an AJC request for an interview for this story.

The idea of the bridge linking the Galleria area — and thousands of parking spaces on the far side of I-285 — was rolled out by Lee the day after the Braves announced their intention move to Cobb County. At the time, Lee incorrectly said the bridge was included in the stadium budget.

The fact the bridge was not included in the ballpark budget became clear three weeks later, when a preliminary agreement between Cobb and the Braves made the county responsible for infrastructure improvements, and said the bridge would be subject to the county’s “best effort” to obtain funding.

In May, the project was put on hold because of concerns over its “feasibility,” according to project documents obtained by the AJC through Georgia’s Open Records Act.

And as late as July, Lee said no local tax money would be used to construct the bridge. When asked after a July 15 commission meeting if the bridge would be an additional expense for Cobb taxpayers, Lee responded: “Probably not. No. I doubt it. I doubt it seriously.”

Lee told the AJC in November that he made those statements because he was hopeful that outside funds would cover the entire cost.

The county issued an Request For Proposals last month, asking firms for their qualifications in designing such a structure. The county will pay $750,000 to the winning bidder, plus the potential 2 percent bonus.

“Aesthetics will be an important aspect of the design,” the document says. “The aesthetic design elements that … will need to (be) considered are the overall structure type, planters, benches, lighting, decorative fencing, ATMs and security. These elements will need to be combined into an overall aesthetics package that will integrate into the Cumberland/Galleria area as well as the proposed SunTrust Park.”

DiMassimo declined to comment when asked if the Braves pushed the county to design the bridge so that it would carry the circulator bus. Braves spokeswoman Beth Marshall said in a written statement that the team has always wanted a bridge, but she emphasized Cobb County, not the Braves, has final say over how the bridge should be constructed.

“From the very beginning of this project we have supported a bridge spanning I-285 for the safety of visitors coming to the ballpark and development and support the plan Cobb County believes is best,” the statement says.

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