Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee said Wednesday the county plans to pay for a bridge over I-285 to the new Braves stadium with a combination of federal transit money, and special purpose sales tax revenue — despite the bridge not being on the SPLOST project list approved by voters in November.
Lee also has given up on the idea that the bridge will be ready for the Braves opening season in 2017.
The announcements, made public Wednesday through email, said the bridge construction schedule is no longer on pace to open in time for any portion of the 2017 season, and that the chairman will recommend “that we postpone the implementation of this project.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has previously reported that the bridge would not be open until September, or the last month of the 2017 baseball season.
“Make no mistake, I am not rethinking the idea of the bridge,” Lee wrote in Wednesday’s email. “I continue to believe that the bridge would be a major asset to Cobb County.”
Using SPLOST funds for bridge will require a majority approval of commissioners. None of the four district commissioners returned messages Wednesday seeking comment.
The announcements come two weeks after The AJC first reported that the Georgia Department of Transportation would not fund any portion of the bridge construction, or the estimated $3.5 million needed to reinforce a parking deck into which the bridge would tie. Lee did not address the issue of how the county will pay for the parking deck improvements.
County officials have said bridge construction will cost at least $9 million, but the AJC has reported at least two engineers who expressed doubt that it can be built for that price.
Lee directed a reporter to his assistant, Kellie Brownlow, when he was asked about the bridge after a commission meeting Tuesday. Brownlow then told the AJC that Lee was unavailable Tuesday, or any other day during the rest of the week.
The newspaper submitted 11 written questions to Brownlow through email Wednesday after Lee’s announcement. None were answered.
The bridge, which would connect fans to 2,000 parking spaces at the Galleria Centre, is considered a critical piece of infrastructure that will help keep pedestrians off busy roadways before and after games.
It is also considered important for the trams that will move people from hotels, businesses and park-and-ride lots.
Cobb Parkway is already one of the busiest corridors in the state, and the Braves stadium is expected to add about 20,000 additional cars to area roadways during sold-out games. Neither the Braves nor the county has released any information about its plans for traffic control, pedestrian safety, or parking.
GDOT announced last week that it was providing $42 million for improvements to help mitigate heavy traffic in the area of SunTrust Park, but declined to contribute to the bridge or the parking deck. That left Cobb scrambling for a new way to fund the project.
Faye DiMassimo, Cobb’s transportation director, did not respond to multiple questions sent to her through email Wednesday. She and Lee were both quoted in the Marietta newspaper article on the bridge Wednesday morning.
DiMassimo said in that story that the county plans to use a portion of $50 million in SPLOST money it has set aside as un-designated funds to match state or federal grants.
Ron Sifen, a citizen member of the county’s Transportation Advisory Board and a transit activist, called that a breach of trust. He called the county’s un-designated SPLOST money a “slush fund,” and questioned what would go unfunded if Federal Transit Administration money is used for the bridge.
Tom Cheek, a western Cobb resident who has battled the county for improvements to the Medical Examiner’s Office, agreed: “The way SPLOST is explained to the voters is that they’re re voting on a speciflc list of projects, and not on a slush fund for projects that will be decided upon later.”
The Braves said in a statement that the team is prepared to open the stadium without the bridge.
“We continue to work closely with the county, our partners in the development and area landowners to provide adequate parking and safe travel to the ballpark,” the statement says. “The safety of our fans and other visitors to the development is paramount, and we will provide multiple avenues to accommodate their safe passage.”
Bob Voyles, a member of the Galleria Authority and the Cumberland Community Improvement District, supports the bridge project but said he encouraged Lee to consider the delay because the Galleria is in the process of an economic feasibility study for a new hotel that would be built next to the convention center.
“We realized if (the county) did any improvements to fix the parking deck, we might have to come back and rebuild some of that when we build our hotel,” Voyles said.
But the announcement also comes less than a week after the Marietta newspaper ran a column that quoted an unnamed member of the Galleria Authority as saying Lee did not have a majority of board members in favor of building the bridge.
The AJC reported in July that three board members expressed concern that the bridge would eat up valuable parking spaces needed for their shops and conventions and that entertainment at the Braves mixed-use development would compete with the performing arts center.
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