As the Atlanta Braves Opening Day game in SunTrust Park on Friday, April 14, nears, local business owners and homeowners are watching game-day traffic to see how best to respond.
Two trial runs offered by preseason games didn’t provide enough information for them to make the call just yet.
The season-ticket-holder exhibition game and a public college game that tested SunTrust Park and its extensive traffic plan seemed to go well, but it remains to be seen in the home opener game April 14 and in subsequent games what traffic will be like during regular season games that compete with weekday rush hours.
Traffic results also were complicated by the I-85 collapse that snarled many of metro Atlanta’s commutes and closed DeKalb County schools.
“I believe [the March 31 game] was an inappropriate day to gauge Braves traffic,” said Reed Haggard, the president of Riverside Homeowners Association, which is in Sandy Springs near the Cobb County border.
Haggard said he didn’t trust the March 31 traffic results to be typical because they came during Spring Break and aftershocks to the bridge collapse, including DeKalb schools closing for the day and downtown workers telecommuting.
Businesses in the Perimeter Center area are waiting to see what traffic conditions are like during weekday games before committing to a traffic plan or determining if one will be necessary, said Emily Haar, the director of Perimeter Connects, an alternative commuting program of the Perimeter Center Community Improvement Districts.
They will have to adjust quickly after their first taste of a home game on a weekday, as the week following the April 14 game will have a game every day Monday through Thursday at 7:35 p.m.
One of the Cobb Chamber’s and the Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber’s responses to the traffic angst was to launch a website, cobbgameday.com, that hosts information on game days and commuting options. The website also suggests businesses ease traffic congestion by allowing employees to telecommute on game days and work flexible hours.
The Atlanta Braves’ traffic plan was put to the first public test on April 8, when two college teams took over SunTrust Park for a game to benefit Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, which the University of Georgia has now done for 14 years. The UGA baseball team played the University of Missouri in what was the first public game at the Braves’ new field in Cobb County.
Traffic didn’t seem to be a problem for most who attended the college game, but this game was already expected by some city officials to not be an issue.
Sandy Springs city officials said at a meeting after the March 31 exhibition game that they expect the UGA game to be “much more low-key” and police will reduce their staffing in the area for it, Bryant Poole, the assistant city manager overseeing traffic and streets, said.
For the exhibition game, Sandy Springs Police officers were stationed at key intersections, and signs were posted in the Powers Ferry Landing area on the Cobb County border — about 1.5 miles away from the stadium — to direct drivers off side streets and onto I-285.
Sandy Springs’ officials called the exhibition game a problem-free “success.” But they also noted it was a restricted-attendance exhibition game held amid the I-85 collapse disaster that made all traffic go haywire anyway.
“There were no issues we were aware of,” Poole said in an informal report to the council after the exhibition game. “We deem it a success.”
The Braves staff will continue to learn from these “trial runs,” Beth Marshall, the senior director for public relations said.
Everyone involved with the team and operations was surprised by how well traffic went during the exhibition game, she said. The collapse of I-85 likely played a role in lessening traffic, Marshall said, as many people decided to work from home or leave work early.
Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said he attended the game and the biggest problems he saw were inside the ballpark, with light and concession check-out malfunctions. “It’s a great facility,” he said.
Those were the main lessons Braves officials learned from the exhibition game, Marshall said, and it was reported that all issues in the game were fixed, including a rain tarp that blocked view for the first two rows of seats and a malfunction with the video board.
Sandy Springs has rolled out a program of traffic-counting at various intersections on game days and non-game days to get hard data on the stadium’s effects. Separating freak effects like the I-85 collapse from stadium impacts is one reason for the data collection.
The I-85 situation will continue to be an X-factor long after Opening Day and the stadium’s first rock concert, as construction on the bridge won’t be complete until June 15.
Paul said attendance at the exhibition game reached about 21,000 — about half the stadium’s capacity and roughly the attendance expected for a typical ballgame.
“I felt very good about what I saw,” the mayor said of traffic, adding it passed the ultimate test: “I didn’t get a single email about it.”
–John Ruch contributed