Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash speaks during a Feb. 13 press conference regarding the House transit bill at the Georgia state Capitol. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Gwinnett transit recommendations unlikely to include rail service

Gwinnett officials intend to present bus rapid transit — not rail service — as the most feasible option for significantly expanding the county’s public transportation.

Gwinnett Department of Transportation director Alan Chapman revealed Tuesday that BRT will be the high-capacity option that’s recommended in the county’s comprehensive transit development plan, which has been in the works for more than a year. BRT, which is often likened to “light rail on rubber wheels,” typically involves limited stops, dedicated lanes and the ability to override traffic signals, making it faster than traditional bus service.

VIDEO: Learn more about mass transit expansion options in metro Atlanta with the AJC's "5 things to know" series.

The planned BRT recommendation is not necessarily a surprise. Even pro-transit officials have suggested that heavy rail — which Chapman said would cost about $250 million per mile in Gwinnett — would be a tough sell, and Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash referenced BRT at least as far back as her 2016 state of the county address.

“Financially, it’s a more reasonable option for us,” Chapman said after briefing the county’s Board of Commissioners on the status of the transit plan, which is scheduled to be presented to the public next month. “And given our population density and our job density at this point, it seems like a more appropriate mode for us to pursue.”

The vision that Chapman and consultant Cristina Pastore presented Tuesday included a BRT line that would run in the Satellite Boulevard corridor on the north side of I-85 before eventually connecting to a “multimodal hub” on the western side of the county. That hub would, one way or another, connect to the existing MARTA station in Doraville.

Local bus service would be expanded through more of the county; more Express bus service dedicated to the Atlanta and Perimeter areas, as well as DeKalb County’s Emory University/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention corridor; and something called rapid bus service added. The latter is different from BRT in that it doesn’t always operate in dedicated lanes.

The specific projects presented Tuesday represented “several billion” dollars worth of investments, Chapman said, because the plan wasn’t yet “constrained” to match the county’s financial realities.

Those realities — not to mention Gwinnett’s ability to hold a referendum on transit expansion — are still being decided at the state Capitol.

Separate bills out of the House and Senate would both allow Gwinnett and other counties to levy a 30-year penny sales tax to pay for transit, creating a crucial funding source. A regional transit entity that Gwinnett would have to opt into to expand its own transit offerings would also be created, but not until Jan. 1, 2019.

The original goal for Nash, the commission chairman, was for Gwinnett to have a vote on transit expansion this fall. 

As both pieces of legislation are currently written, the only option available for November’s ballots would be to join the MARTA system. The current legislative session ends next week. The ultimate passage of either the House or Senate bill — and what the bill’s final version looks like — would play a significant role in what Gwinnett is able to do this year, transit-wise.

“We have to wait and see what happens with the legislature,” said Nash, who was part of a committee that helped shape the original House transit bill and has been a regular the Capitol since. “Then we’ll sort out what, if anything, is available to us beyond what we have right now.”

Chapman said his team is currently in the process of “putting dollars to projects” and will have a list of financially constrained recommendations before the transit plan’s next round of public meetings begins on April 14. Six meetings will be held in all, and officials also plan to attend other community events to gather public input.

“What [Chapman and his team] are doing right now is important regardless” of what happens in the legislature, Nash said.

PUBLIC MEETINGS ON GWINNETT TRANSIT PLAN

  • Saturday, April 14: 2 to 4 p.m. at OneStop Norcross, 5030 Georgia Belle Court, Norcross
  • Monday, April 16: 6 to 8 p.m. at George Pierce Park, 55 Buford Highway, Suwanee
  • Tuesday, April 17: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Lilburn City Hall, 340 Main St., Lilburn
  • Thursday, April 19: 6 to 8 p.m. at Dacula Park Activity Building, 2735 Old Auburn Ave., Dacula
  • Tuesday, April 24: 6 to 8 p.m. at Snellville City Hall, 2342 Oak Road SW, Snellville
  • Wednesday, April 25: 6 to 8 p.m. at Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center, 75 Langley Drive, Lawrenceville

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