For those who have not been paying attention to the Atlanta Braves lately, here are some important things to know:
1. The team is very, very bad.
2. The team likely to be very, very bad for the immediate future.
3. After next season, the franchise will move from its 20-year-old stadium in downtown Atlanta to a new stadium in suburban Cobb County, which is being built with the help of roughly $300 million in public money.
4. Everyone will have to drive to the new stadium because Cobb County famously opted out of allowing light rail within its borders, for fear that, um, city types might show up on their doorstep. This arrangement is OK, because there will be parking on the other side of the highway.
5. To get fans across the highway, there will be some kind of bridge.
Now, about that bridge.
Ah, the Braves bridge. It's a mess. It has always been a mess. The concept first appeared in November of 2013, shortly after Cobb County stunned the sports world by announcing that it was luring the team out to the 'burbs. (To keep the negotiations a secret, it later was revealed, county commission chair Tim Lee had secretly hired a lawyer with commission money without telling any of his colleagues, and then made some commission members stand outside in hallways while others met behind closed doors to evade open-meetings laws. The democratic process.) At the time, no one knew how much the bridge would cost, or exactly how it would be paid for. Those details would be worked out in due time.
Two weeks later, the Cobb County commission passed the Braves stadium deal—or most of it, anyway. Still to be negotiated was a "transportation agreement" that would spell out things like any highway ramps or, say, bridges that might need to be built to enable Braves fans to get to games. But that would happen soon, just you wait.
One year later, with construction on the stadium underway, the bridge remained on the drawing board. Cobb County officials, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, "still don't know how much the bridge will cost or how the county will pay for its half."
"Catching baseballs? Nah, this is what I wear to cross the highway." --Photo by Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
This summer, things got much, much worse, as the Journal-Constitution reported that the bridge might not be ready until September 2017, five months after the stadium opens. That would leave almost an entire season where Braves fans would have to park their cars, then edge their way along the side of a eight-lane highway, underneath an overpass, to finally arrive at their seats. It's walkable, but as one local noted in a web comment, only in the way that "the road in the game Frogger was walkable"— so probably not the sort of stroll anyone will want to attempt after nine innings and a few beers.
That brings us up to this week, when Lee finally admitted that the bridge won't be open until at least the stadium's second season, at the earliest. The Marietta Daily Journal, meanwhile, is reporting that the actual owners of the parking lot that the Braves plan to use—both the state authority that runs the neighboring convention center and the private owners of the office towers that sit nearby—have no interest in allowing the Braves to build a bridge at all, which could result in sad, desperate fans driving to the stadium only to sit forlornly in their cars, listening to games on the radio and wondering what life is like on the other side of I-285.
Now, there are a couple of lessons here. One would be that building a stadium before knowing how fans are going to get there is completely insane. The only possible explanation here is that Lee and his Cobb cohort were so desperate to lure the Braves to their county—we'll finally be known for something other than being the home of Big Boss Man!—that they left the transportation plan as a blank sheet, figuring they could work it out later. Well, the future is now, and they're staring blankly at the same can that they previously kicked.
The other is the same lesson, really, but flipped: If you want to get things done, approve what you can now, and leave the rest for later. Cobb County taxpayers may almost certainly be facing bigger costs now—between the bridge itself and whatever it might take to pay off all the parking lot owners, it's anybody's guess what the final price tag will be—but if all you care about is getting projects done without raising public hackles, ignoring the small stuff is a great way of accomplishing that. In fact, Lee and company could have learned that from Washington, D.C., where a mayoral aide intentionally lowballed stadium costs because, in the words of the Washington Post, "they knew it would be hard to persuade the council to approve a larger budget."
Which is why non-Atlanta sports fans should care about all this, aside from having a reason to laugh and point at Cobb County, and/or the Braves. (Actually, scrap laughing at the team: we already have Nick Markakis's contract for that.) University of Michigan researcher Judith Grant Long determined in her 2012 book that the true cost of new stadiums and arenas is typically inflated 40 percent by hidden costs, including infrastructure payments and tax breaks. This is the true lesson of the Braves' bridge to nowhere: Watch for hidden fees, America, because that's where they get you.