Gwinnett could get bus rapid transit for a fraction of MARTA’s cost

Though many residents would welcome a MARTA commuter rail expansion into Gwinnett County, some local officials may be warming to a mass transit alternative that could cost substantially less: bus rapid transit.

As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported, a 2015 poll found half of likely Gwinnett voters would pay a 1-cent sales tax to bring MARTA to Georgia’s second-largest county. It was a popular topic at some recent public meetings on the county’s future transportation needs.

Gwinnett officials have been cool to recent calls for a public vote on MARTA. But they have touted bus rapid transit as an alternative – without actually endorsing it.

In her “state of the county” speech in February, County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash offered a vision of Gwinnett’s future that included artist renderings of a bus rapid transit system serving Infinite Energy Center, Gwinnett Place and Lilburn. On Tuesday commissioners got a briefing that showed Gwinnett could build a bus rapid transit system for a tenth of the price of a MARTA expansion.

Bus rapid transit mimics passenger rail service: Commuters board at transit stations, and the buses usually travel in dedicated lanes.

Currently, there are no bus rapid transit systems in Georgia. But Cobb County plans a $500 million BRT system along U.S. 41, and cities elsewhere – including Los Angeles, Cleveland and Raleigh – have embraced it.

At Tuesday’s briefing, Gwinnett Transportation Director Alan Chapman provided cost estimates for mass transit systems stretching from the Doraville MARTA station along I-85 to the Mall of Georgia and along Ga. 316 to Lawrenceville. A bus rapid transit system would cost about $660 million, light rail would cost nearly $3.4 billion and MARTA-style heavy rail would cost more than $7 billion.

Chapman said the estimates are very rough, based on the average cost per mile of projects elsewhere. They don’t include operating costs.

He also said building a bus rapid transit system could take five to nine years, while a rail system could take substantially longer.

Some commissioners expressed skepticism about an investment in rail at a time when transportation technology – think driverless cars – is evolving rapidly.

“You’re talking 30 years to put some of this on the ground,” said Commissioner Tommy Hunter. “You have to spend $1.7 billion to find out you didn’t need it.”

But none of the commissioners endorsed bus rapid transit, either. Even Nash has not said she’d support such a system.

“I’m holding out for teleportation,” she said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Gwinnett continues to solicit public input on its future transportation needs. You can express your own opinion by taking an online survey here.

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