A new transit service to move people around Cobb County’s major business district is expected to cost up to $1.7 million a year when operations begin next summer.
And the price will jump by $355,000 the following year, when the buses start rolling to SunTrust Park for Braves games.
That’s according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which give the first detailed look at the new service intended to move workers, residents, shoppers and tourists around Cumberland’s offices, shops, restaurants, convention center and new baseball stadium.
It’s one of the busiest corridors in Georgia, and one of the most congested.
County transportation officials are counting on a one-two combination — the shuttle and I-285 pedestrian-transit bridge — to knock the heavy traffic back a step. And both are considered critical by the Atlanta Regional Commission to mitigate the dangerous situation of pedestrians mixing with traffic on game days.
Ron Sifen, a Cobb resident who is a citizen activist on metro transportation issues, said there is no question that a shuttle system is needed in the Cumberland area, especially when the Braves start playing in April 2017. A traffic study submitted to the ARC last year found that sold-out games will add an additional 28,000 vehicles on the roads around the stadium.
“They will manage traffic best if they get as many people as possible on a bus and out of their individual cars for those short distances” to the ballpark, Sifen said. “It is extremely important … and, I think, a good investment.”
The bridge and shuttle service are two of the largest unknown public costs associated with the Braves’ $1 billion stadium and mixed-use development.
The AJC reported Sunday that the exact cost of the bridge that will carry pedestrians, bicyclists and the shuttles to and from SunTrust Park is still unknown, but that it will be millions more than estimates the county has cited publicly over the past 18 months. County officials initially said the bridge would cost $3 million, before revising the estimate upward to $6 million to $9 million about a year ago.
AJC reporting found about $2.8 million in expenses beyond the county’s highest estimate.
And now the price of a circulator is coming into sharper focus.
Commissioner Bob Ott, who represents the Cumberland area, supports establishing the new transit system. But Ott said it has to be more convenient than people’s cars to be effective.
“In a lot of ways, a circulator is an above-ground subway system,” Ott said. “So I think the system has to have frequency, convenience, and it’s going to have to be easy to use. If it’s all those things, you’ll see people start using it.”
Not everyone is happy about the plan.
General Growth Properties, owner of the Cumberland Mall, has told the county that it is doubtful that shuttles will be allowed on its property, according to a March 25 email from the county’s consultant to transportation staff.
Mall owners, who have previously expressed concern that fans will use their parking lot and ride the circulator to the stadium on game days, wouldn’t allow the consultant to interview shoppers for a circulator survey, the email says.
“Had a long conversation with Keith Daise from General Growth Properties this afternoon. The conversation was polite, however Daise made it known to me that (they) will have nothing to do with the circulator service or project,” the email says. “He … claimed that the circulator was intended to primarily serve the needs of the Braves at the expense of those that … live, work, shop and visit the area.
“Daise intimated that it is doubtful that General Growth would allow the circulator service to enter onto the Cumberland Mall property.”
Ten vehicles to start
The idea of a shuttle in the Cumberland area has been around for a while, since at least the 1990s.
A 2007 study concluded that between 80,000-133,000 people would ride the buses every year. The county used that ridership estimate in its March application for vehicle grant funding with the ARC.
A March 27 email from the Cobb’s consultant to county transportation staff says 10 vehicles would be needed to start the new service, and that additional buses will be necessary before the stadium opens.
Federal grants could cover up to 80 percent of the vehicle costs, which range from about $500,000 a piece for buses with standard diesel engines up to $800,000 for electric-powered vehicles, which save money on fuel and produce no tailpipe emissions.
Cobb commissioners in April approved spending $40,000 to study the feasibility of using electric shuttles, despite the county’s consultant recommending against using them.
“This technology is yet to be proven, and … I would recommend that Cobb County stick with proven propulsion systems for a new start,” says a March 25 email from the consultant to the county’s project manager. “No need to run the risk of a major problem on roll-out of a new bus service.”
A county transportation official responded that electric vehicles are proposed “to augment the primary circulator buses … and not for the entire fleet.”
Cobb DOT Director Faye DiMassimo, who would respond only to written questions for this story, told the newspaper that no decision has been made on the type of circulator vehicle.
The most recent recommendation for the circulator has routes to Wildwood and Home Depot headquarters in addition to two loops around a Cumberland area — one running clockwise; the other counter-clockwise. There’s also a plan for weekend service.
Operational costs depend on the frequency of the buses: It would cost $1.7 million a year to provide a bus every 15 minutes; $1.3 million for 20-minute intervals; $847,000 for every 30 minutes.
Game-day shuttles are extra. They would pick up fans at park-and-ride lots and other remote areas, starting 90 minutes before the first pitch and ending an hour after the last out. That service will cost an estimated $355,000 a year.
It’s not known how many additional vehicles are needed for Braves games, but the county is considering hybrid diesel-electric vehicles, according to an April 6 email.
The type of vehicle is “best suited for a service in a frequent stop-and-go environment,” the email says. “Perimeter seating would maximize seating and standing capacity on Braves game day.”
DiMassimo said it is “to be determined” whether the Braves help fund that service.
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