Does a Major League Baseball stadium in Cobb County require a major transit investment?
The question is being asked by many following the Atlanta Braves’ announcement Monday that the team will relocate to the Cumberland Mall area near I-75 and I-285 when their Turner Field lease expires in 2016.
Anxiety over how tens of thousands of fans will get to the 81 home games has rekindled a debate over rail in Cobb that appeared to have been snuffed with the failure of the 2012 transportation sales tax referendum.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s statement this week stirred the pot: “If Cobb goes forward with this, they’re going to have to have (light) rail.”
Cobb County Chairman Tim Lee, one of the main architects of the Braves move, declined to respond directly on Thursday to Reed’s comment.
Lee said, however, that the county started studying transit options for the I-75 corridor several years ago. And the initial conclusion was that the best option for moving people is a bus-rapid transit system.
Bus-rapid transit is a kind of bus system that would run at times in its own lane of traffic, thereby avoiding the usual congestion delays. The system proposed for Cobb would stretch from Kennesaw State University to Arts Center Station in Midtown at an estimated design-and-construction cost of $497 million.
The traffic study for that project is still ongoing, so the Braves stadium can now be included in the discussion. Lee said he expects bus-rapid transit (BRT) will prevail as the best alternative.
“The beauty about BRT is you can add (buses) as often as you need to accommodate any influx in ridership demand,” Lee said.
But rail advocates say Cobb has more reason than ever now to hop on board.
“I think light rail would be the most practical,” said Gordon Kenna, CEO of Georgians for Passenger Rail. An example of light rail is streetcars or trolleys, versus heavy rail such as MARTA trains.
“Bus-rapid transit is a lot less expensive. But it has a lot less capacity,” Kenna said.
On average, between 2,000 and 5,000 people rode MARTA shuttles to each Braves home game last year, said Brionte McCorkle, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club’s Georgia Chapter. If they hadn’t, anywhere from 900 to 3,000 additional vehicles could have been on the roads.
“The Braves claim this move is partially due to inconsistent mass transit options,” McCorkle said. “But this cannot be the case since the new site lacks adequate transit service as well — much more so than the current site served by MARTA.”
The debate over transit in Cobb is nothing new. It stretches back decades to the inception of MARTA in the 1960s, when Cobb voters signaled they wanted nothing to do with it.
The opposition was in part based on race, said former Gov. Roy Barnes, who hails from Cobb.
“I can tell you what I used to hear out here in Cobb County: ‘Well, we don’t want all those folks from Atlanta coming out here,’ which means, we don’t want anybody that’s a different color than we are,” Barnes said.
Barnes said his response was always that Cobb would become more diverse whether transit stopped there or not.
But mass transit remained just as controversial last year as county leaders were developing local projects to be included in the regional transportation plan, known as TSPLOST.
Field Searcy, an East Cobb resident, opposed the T-SPLOST and bringing rail to Cobb. It wasn’t about race, he said. “I think the issue’s more about what’s the cost benefit analysis of bringing mass transit.”
The impact of a Braves stadium on road traffic in Cobb is also raising a ruckus.
The Georgia Department of Transportation’s existing traffic projections were not consulted by Braves management as they considered Cobb. And GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said Thursday that the Braves have made no request since the move was announced Monday for the department to conduct new traffic studies on the potential stadium impact or invest in new infrastructure to mitigate it.
When asked Wednesday whether the Braves organization had engaged a private company to do a traffic study, Derek Schiller, the team’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, said Cobb “had an existing transportation and traffic study, and a lot of that information can be applied to this project.”
Kenna, the rail advocate, said a small circle of Cobb politicians appeared to have been so “blinded by the light” — that is, the prospect Major League Baseball in their backyard — that they latched onto the idea without properly vetting how it would affect thousands of drivers trying to reach the games.
Cobb County transportation director Faye DiMassimo said her department has provided the Braves with information about a dozen projects already under way to expand or improve arterial roads near Cumberland Mall. The department also committed to perform a site-specific traffic study to identify other needed improvements.
However, county officials acknowledged that they haven’t figured out how to address I-285.
“We’re going to have to look at how to move cars off I-285 and move them as quickly as possible to that area,” said Cobb County spokesman Robert Quigley. “That’s a problem that was there before the deal was announced. And certainly it’s something we’re going to need to address.”
Staff writer Ariel Hart contributed to this article.