Bill Torpy at Large: Surprise! Braves traffic ‘plan’ sticks it to neighbors

On game days, much of the traffic headed to the new Braves stadium in Cobb County will be crawling over Fulton County roads to get there.

Everyone has known this since the Braves and Cobb announced their union in late 2013.

So I was surprised at Sandy Springs officials' surprise last week when Cobb's transportation guy showed up at their meeting and said Cobb wanted to send Braves traffic their way.

The plan would have signs diverting westbound traffic off I-285 at the New Northside Drive exit, which happens to be the last exit before Cobb. Traffic would then be sent west toward the Braves on a two-lane access road.

A writer for the Reporter Newspapers, who attended the meeting, said Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul was “visibly angry,” complaining that Cobb leaders had blown him off when he called to talk traffic.

“This was our nightmare,” he growled. (Mine is arriving for an algebra test I didn’t study for — in my underwear.)

Cobb’s transportation guy, taken aback, responded that fans would be coming that way anyway. Drivers are always looking for a shortcut that will save a few minutes. That’s why half of metro Atlanta streets have speed humps with residents standing on curbs shouting “Slow down!” at cut-through traffic.

But while Sandy Springs pols’ surprise was overstated, and I suspect, a bit theatrical, I do understand their anger. Cobb has a way of being imperious, of cooking up plots and then dropping them in your lap, saying “This is how it’s gonna be.”

Traffic feuds between Cobb and what is now the city of Sandy Springs are not new. In fact, bullets once flew. Really.

Back in the mid-1990s, Cobb widened Johnson Ferry Road on its side of the Chattahoochee River to six lanes and urged Fulton County to do the same. Fulton (what is now Sandy Springs was then unincorporated Fulton) refused, not wanting to become Cobb’s commuting corridor.

In fact, Fulton’s then-traffic chief, Nayef Haddad, cut the green light for incoming traffic from 2 minutes to 50 seconds, creating massive tie-ups on Cobb’s side of the river.

“It’s only 20 minutes more than they used to wait,” Haddad wryly told the AJC.

Finally, in 1997, someone fired a couple large-caliber bullets into the traffic control box in violent protest.

Cobb's then-Commission Chairman Bill Byrne recalls that his county transferred $35 million in fed money earmarked for Cobb to widen roads on Fulton's side. But Fulton would not go along with it, he said, adding that Cobb drivers are still suffering.

The bridge has since been widened to six lanes, although Sandy Springs’ roads are four lanes with bike lanes and overly wide sidewalks. It was as if Sandy Springs embraced the so-called “smart-streets” concept to stick it to Cobb, daring their residents to don Spandex and start commuting by bike. Or walking.

But back to the present: Sandy Springs residents near the Braves’ park are not happy. They already suffer gridlock, and fans queuing up on Sandy Springs’ asphalt won’t make their lives any better.

“Cobb County is exporting their troubles,” said Julio Vaszquez, a retired accountant living not far from the off-ramp. “It is going to be a nightmare.”

D.J. DeLong, a resident involved in numerous issues, said, “This is a shared, regional problem brought on by the Cobb/Braves project. Cobb County should be asking how they can help.”

He thinks shuttling fans in buses is the best near-term solution. But he hasn’t heard many solid plans, adding half in jest: “Those of us living on the west side of Sandy Springs are asking ourselves if we should be paving over the front yard for parking spaces and running a VIP shuttle service to the games?”

Sandy Springs resident Larry Young closed his business office not far from the new park partly because of increased traffic.

“It doesn’t surprise me, we’ve been expecting this,” he said. “But I’m flabbergasted by how little thought has gone into this.”

Mayor Paul leaned back from his initial outrage and met last week with Cobb’s Chairman Tim Lee, the fellow who cooked up the Braves deal and is fighting for his political survival in a runoff with Mike Boyce next month.

As the week ended, a letter surfaced that Paul wrote the Braves two years ago. In it, he outlined several capital improvement projects to help ease traffic, including a new half interchange near the stadium.

Also in the mayor’s letter was a recommendation to put up signs on I-285 and even to use the same access road that Cobb suggested to use to move fans toward the park.

Paul wrote me late Friday to say he did mention signs and the access road in the 2014 letter but not in the sense that Cobb recently proposed them.

He said he was recommending that a “slip ramp” be built to connect exiting drivers straight to the access road, rather than dumping them onto the confusing maze of roads at the exit. That would create a mess, he said.

So, Sandy Springs pols can now shake off their surprise and work to help Cobb figure out a way to get their fans to their new ballpark.