Take a bustling commercial district where 65,000 employees and hundreds of thousands of commuters clog roads and highways at rush hour. Add a 41,000-seat stadium that could draw another 13,000 vehicles – just as those employees and other commuters are heading home.
Now imagine it’s your job to make sure this does not become a traffic apocalypse.
Welcome to SunTrust Park.
Not to worry, say Cobb County and Atlanta Braves officials. The county and the state of Georgia have spent tens of millions of dollars to improve roads and intersections around the new stadium. The Braves have delayed game times, dispersed parking lots, and deployed traffic apps to ease congestion.
County and Braves officials say these and other steps will make traffic bearable – maybe even better – when baseball begins next month at the junction of I-75 and I-285 – two of metro Atlanta’s busiest highways.
But Braves fans may ultimately determine whether traffic in the area becomes a nightmare.
The good old days when you could just show up, buy tickets and find a place to park? Those days are gone, the Braves say. Instead, the team wants you to plan ahead.
In the Braves’ perfect world, you’ll buy tickets and reserve parking in advance. You’ll use the Waze traffic app to guide you right to your parking lot. You’ll arrive early for dinner or a drink, then flash the ticket on your smart phone as you enter the stadium.
After the Braves win (this is a perfect world, after all) you’ll depart on newly widened roads emptied of most other traffic, gliding blissfully home on a cloud of good feelings, eager to return.
That’s the dream world. In the nightmare, hardly anyone pays for tickets or parking in advance. More than 40,000 fans show up at once – just as people who work in the area are trying to leave. Harried fans drive around looking for a parking spot, making everyone – including themselves – miserable. They leave vowing to never come again.
When the first pitch is thrown April 14, the reality is likely to be somewhere between the dream and nightmare. But Braves President of Development Mike Plant believes all those preparations will work.
“Are we going to tweak the plan? Absolutely,” Plant said. “But we’re very confident that if people educate themselves before they come here and buy parking early, it will be a really good experience.”
Skeptics aren’t so sure. Tom Cheek, a Cobb resident and political observer, believes the Braves will need to change their expectations for fans.
“There’s definitely going to be some challenges,” Cheek said. “In the end, I think they will have to make an adjustment to allow drive-up decisions.”
A new home
SunTrust Park sits just west of the junction of I-75 and I-285. Nearly 154,000 vehicles pass through that stretch of I-75 on an average day, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation. Tens of thousands more cruise local roads in the surrounding area, where some 65,000 people work.
The area will become even busier when the Braves open SunTrust Park and a mix of apartments, offices and shops adjacent to the stadium.
Traffic was already bad before the Braves announced the stadium development. In recent years it’s been worse as GDOT and Cobb County launched numerous road improvements, some linked to the stadium, others not.
The Atlanta Regional Commission and state transportation officials recommended a slew of improvements in preparation for the stadium opening. Some of the work is still in progress. But most of the orange barrels will be gone by the April 14 home opener.
Among other things, the governments have added turn lanes on Cobb Parkway at Spring Road and built a new lane to carry westbound I-285 traffic straight to Circle 75 Parkway. They’ve also paid for pedestrian bridges over I-75 at Windy Ridge Parkway and I-285.
Cobb County has until 2019 to complete all of the recommended projects. Among the work still to come: improvements at the intersection of Cobb Parkway and Windy Hill Road and the realignment of Interstate North Parkway.
The county has other tools to keep traffic moving on game days. It will use message signs to direct motorists and change the timing of stoplights to move traffic through congested intersections.
It will deploy police officers at 30 intersections to direct traffic and keep pedestrians safe. And it will operate a shuttle to ferry fans from the Cumberland area to the stadium.
The price tag is steep. County Transportation Director Jim Wilgus said the county and state together have spent well over $100 million on road improvements in the stadium area in recent years.
The shuttle - which serves the area year-round - costs another $1.1 million a year. County Communications Director Sheri Kell said the cost of game-day operations isn’t known yet.
But when the Braves aren’t playing – which is most of the time – the road improvements will benefit everyone who drives through the area, county and Braves officials say. And the construction barrels and lane closures that drivers have endured for years, they say, will have been worth it.
“They’re construction weary,” Wilgus said. “It’s been a long three years.”
Not Turner Field
The Braves also have planned for traffic – starting with the site they chose for the new stadium.
There were basically two ways to reach Turner Field by car: I-75 and I-20. The team says there are 14 “points of access” to SunTrust, counting local roads.
What’s more, Turner Field had 8,700 parking spaces for nearly 50,000 stadium seats, most of them adjacent to the stadium. SunTrust has about 14,000 spaces for about 41,000 seats, and the parking is dispersed across a wide area.
That means traffic won’t be funneled to a single spot. It also means a long walk for some fans, though a Braves shuttle will serve the most distant lots.
Robert Ross, an engineer with Kimley-Horn & Associates, said the Braves chose the site in part because it already had a street network built to accommodate the 65,000 people who work in the area. But that brings its own challenge: On many game days, those employees may be leaving work just as Braves fans arrive.
To address that, the team has pushed back weeknight game times from 7:10 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. It’s also encouraging fans to arrive early – enticing them with shops, restaurants and entertainment at the adjacent Battery Atlanta development – so everyone doesn’t arrive at once.
The Braves have partnered with the ride-sharing service Uber to provide special service to home games. For those who want to drive, the team recommends the Major League Baseball ballpark app, which allows people to buy tickets and parking in advance – even on the way to the game.
“We need people to change their habits when they come to the ballgames,” Ross said.
To make it easier, the team and Cobb County have partnered with Waze, the traffic app. Waze will guide fans directly to their parking lot, while the county feeds the app real-time traffic information.
To encourage parking reservations, none of the Braves lots will accept cash (they will take credit cards), There will be seven independent lots with about 1,200 total spaces that will accept cash.
“Probably the most important word (for fans) is `advance,’” said Larry Bowman, the Braves’ vice president of stadium operations and security.
Will it work?
Whether fans will plan ahead remains to be seen.
Richard Maslia of Atlanta, who has attended games since the 1970s, said he plans to catch an Uber to SunTrust Park this year to eliminate the hassle of parking.
“Times have changed and I don’t think you can just show up, park and buy tickets, like at Fulton County Stadium or Turner Field,” Maslia said.
George Salter of Warner Robins said paying for tickets and parking in advance might not make sense for him.
“Even if you leave very early for the game, you always run the risk of getting stuck in the I-75 `parking lot’ between home and Atlanta,” Salter said. “You may get there late, or not at all. In that case, you have just forfeited your ticket and parking money, which may exceed $100.”
Cheek, the Cobb resident, said it’s ironic the Braves expect careful planning from fans when they sprang the stadium on elected officials in 2013 and demanded quick action.
“They required a hurried decision by Cobb County that did not allow time for attention to detail,” he said.
Cobb County’s Wilgus said it may take a month or so, but he believes fans will get with the program. And he believes all the other preparations will make a difference in game day traffic.
That’s not to say traffic will be great.
“What it’s going to feel like is an extension of rush hour, not a worsening of rush hour,” Wilgus said.