From the day the Atlanta Braves announced their plans to build a new ballpark neighborhood in the area near the Cobb Galleria to the time it opened, I was cautiously supportive of the idea.
Baseball parks in the 21st century are built as vast developments incorporating restaurants, hotels and other supportive businesses that take the building project well beyond the game. The idea is to bring fans into the neighborhood early and keep fans after the game. Even minor-league developments are getting in on the idea.
Simply put, Turner Field had none of that flavor. Efforts to work with the city of Atlanta to develop the neighborhood around Turner Field kept running into obstacles. The Braves had every right to look elsewhere, and they found a willing partner in Cobb County.
The only question, a valid one at that: Could Cobb County handle the extra traffic without having the advantages of a fixed-rail mass transit system?
Pessimists feared the worst. I was willing to go in with an open mind, although I was pretty sure an area without a MARTA rail line was just asking for traffic issues.
To get a true sense of what things would be like, I planned to go up there twice before writing a column that would either praise or bash the commute. I drove up on opening night, arriving early to represent The Telegraph in a media capacity. I then went up there a week ago as a fan, driving at hours that a typical fan would deal with.
Long story short: I was pleasantly surprised by how the surface streets around the new park handled traffic. But Atlanta’s Interstate system is a big, massive headache, compounded by the I-85 bridge collapse.
We all knew that the Interstate system would be a problem. But we didn’t know exactly how much of a problem it would be.
Both times I traveled to SunTrust Park, traffic on I-285 was stop-and-go well before I reached the ballpark.
On opening night, I began my drive from Macon around 11 a.m., with a goal of getting to the park by 1 p.m., a goal that would leave me plenty of time to get my bearings straight prior to the team’s pregame media availability. The drive into Atlanta was smooth, although traffic was heavy.
The traffic app I used on my phone directed me into town, right past Turner Field. Had that been the drive, all would have been well. But this drive was to the north side, and the traffic app pointed me onto I-20, westward toward I-285.
Once off I-20, the day’s biggest traffic problem came into view. I-285 was essentially a parking lot at its westside connection with I-20, the product of construction on 285 and the I-85 bridge collapse.
There was a stretch of a couple of miles where speed picked up. But most of the drive on that northwest quadrant of 285 was spent riding the brakes, inching along toward the Cobb Parkway exit.
Surprisingly, however, things moved quickly once off 285. There were few vehicles on the Cobb Parkway exit, and I practically sailed from that point into the media lot near the third base gate. I ran about 30 minutes behind my goal time, but I still had plenty of time to spare.
The situation a week ago was similar, except that a couple of pregame stops caused me to go around the east side of 285.
From its interchange with I-675 to its northern junction with I-85, 285 barely moved. A drive from Macon to the top end of the perimeter that should have taken an hour and a half took nearly three-and-a-half hours, thanks to the jam on 285.
After making those stops, my friends and I encountered more slowness on 285 between the top end of the perimeter and the ballpark. We were relieved, however, to be moving quickly once we exited 285 and took fairly empty surface streets to the park.
The ballpark itself is a good one, both from a media and fan standpoint. Working conditions are good for the media, and a seat on the 400 level behind the plate puts you right on top of the action. Concession selection is good, and while I have yet to visit The Battery development, I hear good things about it.
While there were issues with traffic leaving the stadium the night Billy Joel had his concert there, I did not encounter any issues leaving the park at either game I attended.
So, now that I’ve been there, I can say there is little wrong with SunTrust Park and The Battery development itself. Sure, you might have to walk a ways to get to or from your parking spot, and maybe the concourses are a little too narrow, but the ballpark neighborhood is a good one.
The Atlanta Interstate system, on the other hand? A total, complete disaster. But we knew that. And that’s not going to change until someone bites the bullet and has additional roadway built in their backyard or those in charge set their fears aside and go all in on MARTA rail expansion.
Issues with driving to SunTrust Park from Middle Georgia aren’t Braves problems. They’re metro Atlanta’s problems. And that makes it problems that the entire state of Georgia needs to step in and help fix.