Gwinnett’s transit plans now include running heavy rail into county

Gwinnett County’s long-range plans for transit expansion include a bit of heavy rail after all.

Officials said Thursday afternoon that the county’s comprehensive transit plan — the near-finished version of which will be revealed in a new round of public meetings that begins Saturday — will include the recommendation that rail be extended from the existing Doraville MARTA station to connect to a new “multimodal hub” in the area of Jimmy Carter Boulevard.

The proposal is a significant milestone for a county that has twice rejected joining the MARTA system, and one of the first concrete steps toward extending rail service into Atlanta’s suburbs since last month’s passage of regional transit legislation.

“Heavy rail is very expensive and I think we knew all along that we couldn’t provide to a significant part of the county,” Gwinnett Department of Transportation Director Alan Chapman said. “But I think it became apparent to us that it is a needed improvement … to make a large part of the system work.”

More coverage: Does it really matter when Gwinnett holds its transit referendum?

During a previous briefing on the county’s transit plan, Gwinnett officials said bus rapid transit — buses that operate in dedicated lanes and with fewer stops than more traditional routes — would be among the primary recommendations for expanding transit options within the county.

That’s still the case. But Thursday’s media briefing with Chapman and Cristina Pastore of consulting firm Kimley Horn made the plan for rail’s role more clear.

They said the long-range plan calls for heavy rail to be extended from the Doraville MARTA station, which is just inside I-285 in DeKalb County, to the site of a future hub near Norcross. The exact site of that hub is still undetermined but officials are targeting the area near Jimmy Carter Boulevard and I-85.

Between four and five miles of heavy rail — which is priced around $250 million per mile — would likely be necessary to connect the two locations. The route would likely be built along smaller Norcross-area streets before running along Buford Highway to Doraville.

Legislation that passed Georgia’s General Assembly earlier this year (but still requires Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature) would create a 13-county metro transit region dubbed The ATL and give each of those communities, including Gwinnett, the ability to impose transit-funding sales taxes of up to 1 percent for up to 30 years.

Chapman said estimates put the potential revenue collected from such a sales tax in Gwinnett at more than $5 billion.

The legislation also gives Gwinnett the option to hold a November referendum on joining the MARTA system, or to wait and have a more generic transit referendum after The ATL’s board is officially formed on Jan. 1. Gwinnett has twice voted down joining MARTA in the past, though the most recent referendum was in 1990.

The Gwinnett Board of Commissioners has not yet determined when a transit referendum might be held. The board’s decision is likely to come following the completion of the county’s transit plan, which is expected in coming months.

MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe said the agency has not discussed a rail extension with Gwinnett County, but he expects talks to begin soon. Regardless of when Gwinnett holds a referendum, MARTA would have operating rights to any heavy rail.

“I expect in the next several months for us to have serious discussions with Gwinnett County about what services we can provide to Gwinnett County,” Ashe said Thursday.

Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said Thursday that, if metro Atlanta is going to have a transit system that works on a regional basis, connections across the system needs to be “as simple and convenient as possible.” Limiting transfers and switches between modes of transit will be part of that.

“While the future of heavy rail in Gwinnett may be limited, a link to existing heavy rail that provides a travel method to the other side of I-285 without being in the traffic on the roadways would be useful to the riders of the system,” Nash said. “Doing that with heavy rail rather than light rail eliminates the transfer that would be required to move from the light rail line to the heavy rail line.”

In addition to a possible rail connection to Doraville, the transit plan is expected to recommend that a BRT line run in the Satellite Boulevard corridor parallel to I-85. That line would run from the new Norcross transit hub to the Inifinite Energy Center near Duluth.

Local bus routes could also be expanded, and more Express commuter bus services to different parts of the Atlanta area are possible. The addition of rapid bus service, which is different from BRT in that it doesn’t always operate in dedicated lanes, is also possible.

-- Staff writer David Wickert contributed to this article.

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