Representatives from three of Atlanta’s pro sports franchises and the Atlanta Motor Speedway announced their support for the $8.5 billion regional transportation referendum at the Metro Chamber of Commerce on Monday.
(Here’s how Jim Galloway, author of The Political Insider blog, saw things.)
Falcons president Rich McKay, Braves vice president of business operations Mike Plant and Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler were on hand along with Atlanta Motor Speedway president and general manager Ed Clark. The Hawks also support the referendum, which, if passed on July 31, would fund 157 regional projects, including $600 million to maintain the MARTA rail lines in good repair.
McKay, who grew up in Los Angeles amidst their traffic woes, said the Falcons don’t want to see the area’s growth stifled because of traffic. Because the team only plays 10 games a season at the Georgia Dome, it’s not really an issue directly related to the team’s fan experience or ability to compete in the National Football League.
“This is about the region and how the region succeeds, grows and prospers,” said McKay, who stated that he has a 43-mile commute to Flowery Branch. “When you look at what Atlanta has done, we’ve been such a progressive city over time, always kind of marching forward. Here’s an opportunity for us to continue that. Our concern is that with a ‘Vote No’ we’ll kind of take a step backwards.”
The Dream also considers the transportation referendum as more of a community-based issue.
“We think this referendum really supports everyone, no matter if they are going to work, home, church or to school, ” Loeffler said.
They stressed the need to improve transportation throughout the metro region.
McKay noted that less than 25 percent of the team’s season ticket holder accounts are in Fulton County and less than 20 percent list Atlanta as their address. Football fans heavily use mass transit as 20 percent of the Falcons’ fans arrive via MARTA.
“There is no question that these projects impact that other 80 percent,” McKay said.
There are only seven other cities that have all of their major sports venues – football, baseball and basketball – within the city limits.
The Braves repeatedly hear that traffic is the No. 1 reason that fans don’t attend games more often. They also have a more regional fan-base. A total of 50 percent of their fan base comes from outside of a 50-mile area from downtown, according to Plank.
They also have a problem with the traffic surrounding their Class AAA Stadium in Gwinnett County.
““We know that traffic is a huge problem,” Plank said. “It’s this entire region.”
Braves fans and Falcons fans in general get bashed nationally for arriving late and leaving early, even for big playoff games. Super Fans in cities like Pittsburgh and Green Bay –– win or lose – stay until the game is over.
“It’s a little bit of a sad display of where our psyche is, 7th or 8th inning and the game is close — even in the postseason — people are of the mindset to get out of the stadium because they’ve got to beat the traffic. You don’t see that in too many other places in the country.”
Clark first arrived at the speedway in 1992, when Henry County’s population was between 30,000 and 40,000. It’s now over 200,000 and there are not enough roads parallel to Interstate 75, which leads to congestion even in the middle of the day.
Some of the critics of the referendum contend that it is just a roads and bridges bill and that the projects will not really help traffic or congestion. Other critics contend that more money should be shifted to mass transportation improvements.
“The commuter rail line that’s been proposed from Atlanta to Macon, is one of the things they’ve talked about it,” Clark said. “To do that in Hampton and bus people from where the rail station would be to the speedway; that would be helpful. Everything helps when you have 100,000 people coming your way into a community that may have 4,500 people or so like Hampton.”
About six to seven percent of the Braves fans ride MARTA and take a shuttle to the stadium.
“Ideally, we’d love to have mass transit run into the Stadium,” Plank said. “When you look at most of the brand new stadiums, that’s what they are doing. Our Band-Aid, as I call it, is one that has worked for a number of years, six to seven percent of our fan-base uses MARTA and the shuttle [bus] system.”
Despite that the referendum will not solve all of the area’s traffic issues, the sports teams are staunchly supportive.
“When you look at where we are compared to cities like Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham or other cities that are the same size or smaller, we’re behind the eight ball,” Plank said.
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog