Cobb County’s recently announced plan to divert future Braves stadium traffic onto Northside Drive was enough to outrage Sandy Springs officials. But adding fuel to the fire was the plan’s lack of any of five traffic fixes the city has suggested for nearly two years.
In the wake of a follow-up meeting between Cobb Chairman Tim Lee and Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, held in the mayor’s office, one of those fixes is moving ahead immediately: a city-funded study of a new I-285/Powers Ferry Road interchange in Cobb.
“I think we’re in a good place. I think we’re on the same page,” said Kellie Brownlow, Lee’s deputy chief, adding the chairman believes they will “end up with great solutions for both of us—both sides of the river.”
And Braves spokesperson Beth Marshall said “it appears that all entities will continue to communicate to reach a plan that will benefit all parties.”
While both sides have talked about better communications going forward, the actual traffic planning remains essentially a Cobb-driven project, according to Bryant Poole, Sandy Springs’ assistant city manager for transportation.
It remains to be seen whether border politics will continue to play a role, too. After the June 21 City Council meeting where Paul blasted Cobb’s plan as “our nightmare,” anonymous sources circulated a 2014 letter the mayor sent the Braves outlining the five traffic fixes, along with a suggestion the mayor’s own letter recommended Cobb’s Northside Drive plan and the outrage was for some reason faked.
In fact, the city’s suggestions are significantly different from what Cobb proposed, and city officials were genuinely surprised, Poole said. Staff didn’t see it coming either, he said.
“When [Cobb Interim Transportation Director Jim Wilgus] walked in that night with the presentation, that’s when we’re seeing it,” Poole said. “That was [the mayor and council’s] first time seeing it, that night.”
Cobb simply proposes telling stadium-bound I-285 drivers to get off at Northside Drive onto Interstate North Parkway and/or Powers Ferry Road. The city does also propose using Interstate North as a “route to the stadium”—but also building a new “slip ramp,” or bypass, to let traffic access it west of the Northside interchange. Poole said the goal is to avoid clogging the interchange and limiting the potential for neighborhood cut-through traffic. And it’s just one of five interconnected fixes the city suggests.
“It wasn’t in [Wilgus’s] proposal at all,” Poole said of the new ramp. “[Cobb’s plan is] trailblazing off the interstate onto Interstate North Parkway.”
Cobb’s plan is not final. On the other hand, the clock is ticking to a February 2017 opening.
The city’s proposed stadium traffic fixes remain essentially the same since that 2014 letter, Poole said. They include:
- At least planning a new 285/Powers Ferry interchange in Cobb County. A $450,000 city-funded study will move forward after Lee agreed it is a good idea, according to Brownlow and city spokesperson Sharon Kraun.
- Creating a “no return access” exit ramp off I-285 westbound in the area between Powers Ferry and the I-75 northbound exit ramp.
- Using I-285 shoulders as express bus lanes. The city considered adding this idea to its list of transportation sales tax projects, heading to the ballot this fall, but could not get state approval in time.
- Installing dynamic message boards on I-285 westbound to advise stadium-bound drivers. Cobb is proposing dynamic signing on the interstate, but also on local streets, which is what Wilgus was requesting the city approve. And Cobb wants those signs to direct drivers right into the 285/Northside interchange.
- Create the slip ramp from 285 to Interstate North past the Northside Drive interchange.
Any of those fixes would take a lot more coordinated planning. Marshall said the Braves have “put together a comprehensive traffic management plan with our partners that maximizes vehicular flow, ensures public safety and minimizes the impact on surrounding neighborhoods.” And in “coming weeks,” the team will be announcing a series of traffic plans, she said.
But remains unclear why there were gaps in county-city communication, or what the exact roles and lines of communication for “stakeholder” agencies are.
Brownlow declined to comment on the record about Mayor Paul’s claims that Lee and other Cobb officials hadn’t returned his traffic-related calls for months.
Cobb County government did not immediately respond to questions about why the city’s fixes were not included in the traffic plan. At the June 21 City Council meeting, city officials said they were waiting on Cobb’s approval to move ahead with the 285/Powers Ferry interchange study. Meanwhile, Brownlow said, “Chairman Lee was under the impression it was [already] being done.”
Officials from Sandy Springs and the Georgia Department of Transportation are among those who have attended Cobb update meetings about traffic planning. But Sandy Springs was still surprised by the recent interchange plan. And, Poole said, he has not spoken recently with GDOT about the planning. Spokesperson Annalysce Baker would only say that “GDOT is aware of the [Cobb] traffic plan concept” and that plans aren’t final.
Chris Burnett, the newly elected city councilmember for much of the 285 stretch in question, said he plans to hold a public traffic forum as one of his first actions.
“Traffic is certainly the most significant issue that I have discussed with our residents, particularly relating to the Braves stadium and the Riverside roundabouts,” he said.
City Councilmember Andy Bauman, who represents the area south of the interchange, said in a June 25 email to constituents that “fireworks came early to Sandy Springs” with the traffic outrage. “While we have had a seat at the table, I am disturbed that Cobb has been slow to embrace or seemingly even acknowledge Sandy Springs’ very reasonable suggestions for traffic planning and mitigation,” he wrote, adding that he has heard from many residents about it. “Please know that I hear you. I hear your nervousness, anger, angst and frustration,” he wrote.
Lee Duncan, the city’s former Planning Commission chair who currently oversees a zoning code rewrite committee, lives in the Northside interchange area and says regional traffic talk needs to improve on both sides.
On Cobb’s side, Duncan said, he tried and failed to get a Planning Commission member a seat at the stadium planning table. And on the city side, he said, “we have to do a better job of reaching out.”
“It’s a shame that we have our silos,” Duncan said.