By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on July 26, 2013
The Atlanta Braves are partnering with a private company to build a maglev train from MARTA’s Georgia State station to Turner Field as a way to improve fan accessibility to the stadium.
But before that project can begin, the Atlanta Braves must first negotiate a new agreement with the city of Atlanta. The baseball team’s lease of Turner Field runs out on Dec. 31, 2016. The Braves would love to reach a new agreement — with more favorable terms — as soon as possible.
The maglev train, or some kind of mass transit connection to MARTA, is considered essential to the Braves, which attract about 2.5 million fans to the ballpark each year.
“The No. 1 impediment to why folks don’t come to more games is traffic and transportation issues,” said Mike Plant, executive vice president of business operations for the Braves, who is heading the negotiations. “That’s been true year in and year out.”
The Braves are working with American Maglev Technologies Inc. (AMT), a Marietta-based company that has been promoting maglev transportation for decades but has yet to build a system other than a test track and vehicle currently located in Powder Springs.
AMT is working with Grupo ACS based in Madrid, a multibillion-dollar engineering and construction firm, that is expected to provide funding for the Turner Field maglev project.
“This will be the first commercially viable maglev project in the United States,” said Tony Morris, AMT’s president and CEO. “ACS has committed to provide the financing to do the project. This is strategic. The whole world is looking for transportation that is cheap to build and cheap to operate.”
The maglev system being proposed by AMT costs about $20 million a mile to build, and each vehicle costs about $4 million. The one-mile elevated track from the Georgia State MARTA station to Turner Field with two vehicles is expected to cost about $30 million.
It would take less than two minutes for each vehicle, which can carry about 200 passengers, to make the one-mile trip. The automated trains (meaning there would not be an operator) would travel as fast as 40 miles an hour, and trains would arrive every two minutes.
Plant said that major new sports and entertainment complexes have mass transit at their front door, and that Turner Field has been at a disadvantage with the current system of fans having to board the Braves shuttle buses that get stuck in traffic.
“We have to find a better solution, and this looks like a good solution,” Plant said.
“This is a company that’s willing to put up the money to fund it. It is a pretty environmentally friendly and efficient technology. To me it seems like a good solution.”
A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, said it is important to provide a stronger link between Turner Field and downtown.
“We need to finally figure out a way to connect to the baseball stadium in a meaningful way,” Robinson said. “If maglev makes financial and practical sense, let’s do it. A future streetcar could also make sense and would help the Braves and the surrounding neighborhoods with future development. It’s time to work on these connectivity challenges as we climb out of recession. The Braves have been on an island for too long.”
Duriya Farooqui, chief operating officer for the city of Atlanta, said through a spokeswoman that the city is evaluating the feasibility of a maglev train between the Georgia State MARTA station and Turner Field.
“Improved public transportation to and from the Field is important and could help fuel the revitalization of the neighborhoods around Turner Field,” Farooqui said.
Asked about the negotiations with the Atlanta Braves, Farooqui said: “The negotiations on the lease are progressing.”
Plant said he has been working with the various partners — the city of Atlanta, the Georgia Department of Transportation, the Georgia Building Authority, Georgia State University and MARTA — to explore the possible partnerships and issues that would be involved in developing the maglev system.
For example, Georgia State students currently park at Turner Field’s parking lots and ride shuttle buses to the university. The maglev system could replace those buses and reduce the emissions and traffic along that corridor.
Also, there have been preliminary discussions with MARTA about having a reciprocal fare arrangement where passengers could transfer seamlessly from one system to another.
Morris also said that AMT anticipates that the maglev system would be able to operate without any public subsidies. The Braves would help provide annual operating expenses with advertising revenues from its sponsors.
Georgia State likely would contribute toward the transportation costs of its students.
AMT also would expect getting fare box revenue.
The operating costs also are minimal because the maglev trains use about 60 percent less energy than buses or trains carrying similar loads, they have fewer moving parts, and they have no drivers.
Morris, a Georgia Tech engineering graduate, explained that the AMT technology is different than the more expensive maglev technology that’s been developed in Germany.
“In Germany, they built a smart track and a stupid car. The vehicle was a surf board riding a wave,” Morris said. “We built a system that was a smart vehicle on a stupid track.”
Morris also is proud to say that it is a product that’s made in the United States using 118 American companies from 77 congressional districts in 26 states. Lockheed Martin will build the vehicles, each of which is expected to take about five months to assemble.
In all, once construction begins on the project, it would take about 14 months to build. The trickiest part will be installing the three columns that would cross over the Downtown Connector. In all, it is estimated that it will take 41 columns to support the elevated track.
Interestingly enough, Morris first proposed to build this same maglev connection in 1994 so Atlanta would have the transportation service in time for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. But there were time constraints and bureaucratic issues that got in the way.
Now the big issue is negotiating a new Turner Field lease agreement for the Atlanta Braves. Plant said the city is “now engaged” in talks with the Braves.
“We have been in a lot of discussions with the city,” Plant said, adding that with the “right commitment and a willingness” to reach an agreement, he believes “we can really move pretty quickly.”
Plant said he would like to have the maglev system in operation in time for the opening of the 2015 baseball season.