The Cobb County Commission met last night to vote on giving $300 million in tax subsidies to the Atlanta Braves for their $672 million stadium plan, and — the suspense is killing you, isn’t it? — it passed, of course. If there’s a surprise, given the way the entire deal was worked out in complete secrecy in the weeks before its surprise announcement 16 days ago, it’s that the vote wasn’t unanimous: Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who’d said before the vote that “I’m gonna have to pray about it,” ultimately voted no, saying she was uneasy about the rushed decision, but the other four commissioners gave the deal the thumbs-up.
According to the Peach Pundit news blog, the final memorandum of understanding included two amendments, neither of which have had their text revealed; the Pundit says that “one seemed to eliminate some sort of arterial train,” which could be a reference to the transit link to downtown Atlanta that was mentioned as a possibility in the original MOU and which Cobb’s Republican Party chair had disparaged as a deal-breaker because he didn’t want anyone “moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta.” (You know: those people.)
Transportation improvements, though, are just one of the things that have still yet to be worked out by the commission and the Braves. (A stadium operating agreement is another, which is important because it would determine how much the county would have to put up for future capital improvements to the stadium, as well as whether the Braves will have any out clauses that would allow them to break their lease early.) I wondered last week whether all the needed transportation improvements could be paid for with the $14 million that Cobb has committed to the project, and the Peach Pundit is wondering too, only with actual numbers:
Other transportation options are being explored to facilitate efficient traffic flow, including the utilization of the Cobb Community Transit bus system and the development of a trolley line connecting Cumberland-area businesses. Cobb County officials also plan sidewalk improvements around the site and have potential plans for a bus transit and pedestrian-only bridge connecting I-285 to the Galleria area.
Cobb County officials also are planning to build a bridge that will span I-285, connecting the Cobb Galleria office park to the stadium. Tim Lee gushed over this “Cheesecake Factory” bridge in a recent story. He stated it would have a shuttle that ran across it all the way to the Cumberland Mall/Galleria area. The bridge at 17th street in Atlanta cost approximately 40 million. That bridge was much easier to build than this one, as the interstate runs significantly below grade at the crossing point. The highway in this instance is well above grade, and the bridge will have to be much longer and built much higher. The grade cannot be very great or the shuttle, in whatever form it takes, will not be able to climb the bridge. This points to a bridge cost of conservatively 3 times the 17th street bridge, probably closer to 4. It is safe to say that this bridge, though specifically stated as being part of the the overall costs in the MOU, has not been budgeted.
The first paragraph discusses things that GDOT is already doing or planning to do, so there’s no cost there to Cobb taxpayers outside of what they already pay in state taxes. The second and third paragraphs refer to “options,” “plans,” and “potential plans.” Is $14M enough to cover building pedestrian bridges and trolleys, in addition to the more likely items like sidewalks and CCT buses? My guess is no.
Three to four times the cost of the 17th Street bridge would mean $120-160 million, which is a hell of an unfunded mandate — and that’s just one item on the Braves’ wish list. The Pundit says it’s “likely the state DOT will have to catch some of the total left over when the irrational exuberance fades”; if that’s going to require a state vote, then things could get interesting, given the murmurings of opposition to the deal in the legislature. Cobb County clearly intended last night’s vote to plant a stake in the ground that can’t easily be removed, but as we’ve seen in other cities, committing to a deal before knowing all the specifics is a great way to end up spending a whole lot more than you bargained for.