Cobb County plans to direct game-day traffic for the new Braves stadium off I-285 and onto local streets at Northside Drive, an idea that drew shock and outrage from the Sandy Springs City Council on June 21.
“This was our nightmare,” said a visibly angry Mayor Rusty Paul, blasting the plan and saying Cobb County leaders have not returned his calls for traffic management planning. He demanded that Cobb leaders “get everybody in a room real fast…We’ve got to figure out some alternative to this.”
Two days later, Paul and Cobb County Chairman Tim Lee met to talk about the traffic plan, according to a jointly issued press release.
The news was delivered in a non-voting council work session by Jim Wilgus, Cobb’s interim transportation director. The specific topic was permission to install directional signs for the Braves’ SunTrust Park and related Battery Atlanta commercial development, which are slated to open early next year in Cobb’s Cumberland area at I-285 and I-75.
Then Wilgus dropped his bombshell: On days of games and other big events, the signs—with “dynamic” messages that change on the fly—would direct stadium-goers to get off highways one exit before Cumberland and use local streets. On 285, that exit is Sandy Springs’ Northside Drive, and traffic would route onto Powers Ferry Road and Interstate North Parkway, known locally as the “access road.” Cobb wants to put one of the signs on Powers Ferry near the Chattahoochee River.
Wilgus said the idea is to lessen congestion on highways. Mayor Paul and councilmembers noted that means increasing congestion on local streets.
“You want to take all the traffic off 285 and put it on surface streets?” asked an incredulous Councilmember Tibby DeJulio.
“That’s what we want to do all over the system,” Wilgus replied.
Wilgus fenced with the mayor and councilmembers over definitions of street types and hypothetical traffic impacts.
“You can’t run these [sign-directed drivers] through neighborhood streets,” Paul said.
“We’re not running them through neighborhood streets…Interstate North is not really a neighborhood street,” Wilgus said.
“I live there, so you don’t tell me that it’s not a neighborhood street,” the mayor said. “We live here. We know those streets.”
Some councilmembers noted that, once directed onto those roads, stadium traffic could be expected to starting cutting through even more side streets. Wilgus said the signs would avoid that, adding, “That’s not our intent, to run [traffic] through neighborhoods.”
“But that’s the plan,” Mayor Paul replied, while DeJulio added, “That’s not a plan. That’s a hope.”
The Braves’ move from Atlanta to Cobb was a secret deal announced in late 2013 and raised immediate traffic questions for the congested top end Perimeter. Bryant Poole, the city’s assistant manager for transportation, said Cobb’s traffic engineering staff has been meeting with his staff regularly, and Wilgus said that Cobb County Police will soon connect with their Sandy Springs counterpart for emergency response planning.
But, Paul said, big-picture, policy-level planning has been lacking. He said Cobb’s county manager and county chairman have not returned phone calls from him about traffic impacts.
“We’ve been trying for months to sit down with you people and work some of these issues out,” Paul said. “We’ve got alternative plans we’d like to see put in place. But we can’t get the time of day for you to come over here and sit down with us.”
Sandy Springs City Manager John McDonough raised another issue—a long-proposed idea of an improved version of the half-interchange of 285 and Powers Ferry on the Cobb side of the river. The city thinks it’s such a good idea, it has reserved $450,000 to fund a study itself, a move just awaiting Cobb’s approval. But, McDonough and other officials said, Cobb has not responded, and Wilgus could not say what the county currently thinks of the idea.
“That’s a top priority” for the city, the mayor said, adding that if Cobb wants Sandy Springs to even consider its signage plan, there must be “concrete accomplishments, not just talk” on the 285/Powers Ferry project.
As the discussion wound down, Mayor Paul apologized to Wilgus for some of his emotional heat—but not for the content of his reaction.
“I don’t like shooting the messenger,” the mayor said, “but you’re the one who showed up.”