GDOT to Cobb: No help for bridge

Cobb County has struck out in its efforts to secure state funding for a bridge that would carry pedestrians and a shuttle bus over Interstate 285 to the Atlanta Braves’ new SunTrust Park.

The county had requested matching grant funds from the Georgia Department of Transportation for the bridge and a related project — reinforcing a Galleria parking deck into which the bridge will tie.

The parking deck project, estimated to cost $3.5 million, is necessary to make the deck stronger before shuttles can drive across the platform and access the bridge, which county officials say will cost $9 million. The county’s application for GDOT funding is the first time the cost of the deck project has been made public.

While GDOT provided $42 million in grants to the county — most of which will help fund roadwork that will benefit SunTrust Park — the state transportation agency balked at the two projects most directly related to the Braves’ new stadium.

And those two projects are considered critical by the statewide transportation planning agency for pedestrians safety and for preventing interference with the flow of traffic around the stadium. Sold-out games at SunTrust Park are expected to add 25,000 cars to roadways in the area.

It is unclear from where the money will come to pay for the projects — and Cobb County officials wouldn’t discuss the possibilities on Thursday.

Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee refused to speak to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Instead, he issued a statement that said the county will “continue to seek funding from all potential partners for all infrastructure projects, including the bridge.”

He did not respond when asked who those partners are.

Likewise, Cobb DOT Director Faye DiMassimo was not allowed to speak directly to the AJC, as the newspaper is required to submit all questions to her in writing.

On the question of who might help the county pay for the bridge, DiMassimo issued a statement nearly identical to Lee’s, but with the additional comment that “as federal, state and local funding opportunities arise, we will continue to evaluate (them) accordingly.”

Commissioner Bob Ott, who represents the Cumberland area, said he thinks “those who will benefit from the bridge, if it is built, should pay for it.”

Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon and Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin both told the AJC earlier this week that they think the Galleria and Braves will benefit equally from the project. The mayors are members of the Galleria Authority.

But Bob Voyles, who is a board member of the Galleria Authority and the Cumberland Community Improvement District, said neither organization currently plans to contribute directly to the bridge or parking deck projects.

The Cumberland CID is already giving $10 million toward SunTrust Park infrastructure improvements and has raised the property tax rate on its businesses to generate $5.1 million a year. The property tax revenue is dedicated to helping pay stadium debt being assumed by the county.

“The Galleria is participating already through its CID funding, because the Galleria is one of the largest single taxpayers in the county,” Voyles said. “There’s a 3-mill additional charge for all of the property owners (in the CID). That’s on top of the $10 million cash contribution. So, arguably, we are already contributing.”

The county has for two years continued to say the bridge will cost only $9 million — which was a “conceptual” estimate made before any design or engineering work had been done.

The AJC reported in May that more than $3 million in bridge-related expenses are not included in the estimate and that two bridge engineers questioned whether it could be constructed for that amount.

Stephan Durham, an associate professor in the University of Georgia’s College of Engineering who reviewed bridge documents for the AJC, told the newspaper bridge construction could easily cost $12 million.

Then in July, the AJC reported that the parking deck would need to be reinforced before the bridge could open. That same story was the first to report that the 1,100-foot bridge is not likely to be ready until the September 2017, or in the last month of the Braves’ initial season in the new stadium.

The cost of the bridge is relevant because Lee has said repeatedly that the county’s contribution to the stadium is “capped” at $300 million. But that figure does not include ancillary expenses — chiefly public safety and infrastructure costs, such as road improvements, the bridge and the parking deck project.

Jay Roberts, GDOT’s director of planning who was involved in evaluating the projects, said none of the grant money awarded to Cobb County was directly related to SunTrust Park. He said all the projects receiving state funding are intended to thin traffic in the corridor, regardless of the new stadium.

“It’s one of the most congested corridors in the state,” Roberts said. “We were trying to help with that issue. We chose projects that we felt like would help from a mobility, congestion relief and safety standpoint.”

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