Traffic in Gwinnett County is really bad. Beyond really bad.
Just ask William Mayfield. He’ll tell you.
“I get really disgusted when I get on I-85 sometimes,” the Grayson man says.
Mayfield’s not alone.
The stretch of I-85 between Ga. 316 and Spaghetti Junction is among the most chronically congested in metro Atlanta. Thousands of commuters inch along that piece of interstate, and the county’s collection of other crowded corridors, every single day. A quarter-million folks from Gwinnett spend more than half an hour commuting to work each day, each way.
Many spend much longer than that.
Traffic in Georgia’s second most populous county has reached a kind of critical mass. But is it bad enough to convince folks to join MARTA?
Gwinnett’s political and demographic evolution will play a huge role in the success or failure of its March referendum on the matter. In the nearly 30 years since Gwinnett voters rejected MARTA, surveys and polls have shown attitudes toward transportation becoming increasingly more favorable.
However, the referendum’s margin of victory or defeat is likely to be slim. So is the traffic-related disgust that folks like Mayfield feel prevalent enough to convince otherwise transit-averse people to pay to join MARTA — prevalent enough to help swing the results?
Maybe. Just maybe.
“People who would never even think about the idea of transit being a viable idea for Gwinnett County, the more times they have to travel up and down the I-85 corridor, the more likely they are to become open to the idea of transit,” Gwinnett Commission Chair Charlotte Nash said. “Now some of them are probably thinking ‘transit for everybody else so there’s more room for my car.’ But people are talking about transit I never thought I would hear talking about transit.”
‘Making sure it doesn’t get any worse’
Gwinnett County last voted on — and overwhelmingly rejected — the idea of joining MARTA in 1990. At the time, the county had about 350,000 residents. Traffic was bad then, but not like today.
According to data compiled by the Atlanta Regional Commission, more than 55 percent of Gwinnett commuters drive more than 30 minutes to work each day — including 16 percent who commute for at least an hour or more. Both are the largest percentages of any county in metro Atlanta.
In 1990, about 44 percent of Gwinnett residents commuted 30 minutes or more. Today, there are about 250,000 Gwinnett commuters who travel 30 minutes or more to work — a number larger than the number of commuters in 1990.
Transit expansion — which, under the county’s would-be contract with MARTA, would include a rail extension to Norcross and an extensive bus system with diverse options — also does not mean Gwinnett will stop building roads. The county has allocated $450 million of the proceeds from the more traditional special-purpose sales tax that voters approved in 2017 for roads, bridges and intersection improvements.
Plans to increase road projects are a way, officials say, to get ahead of projections that show Gwinnett will add as many as 500,000 more people by 2040. So is transit.
“We can’t keep doing things the way we have done them,” Nash said. “And I think it’s harder for us, because we’ve been so successful in doing things, we’ve been able to generate a lot of money to build a good road system. And we’re going to continue building roads because we don’t have a choice about that — but we’ve got to provide some additional options.”
Part of the pitch transit advocates are using to push for the referendum’s passage is summed up by Art Sheldon, a member of the Georgia Sierra Club: “The key is also making sure[traffic] doesn’t get any worse.”
Not everyone agrees that transit is the best way to do so.
Michael Beck is the administrator of the “No MARTA Gwinnett” Facebook page.
He lives in the Hamilton Mill area, on the northern side of the county. He said he and his neighbors would be getting the raw end of the deal, subsidizing a plan that is south Gwinnett-heavy and, in his eyes, wouldn’t do much for traffic.
“If you live in north Gwinnett, you live here with the knowledge that it’s going to take a while to get to Atlanta,” Beck said. “We’re up here for a reason.”
Joe Newton, a longtime local gadfly, took a different route to get to the same anti-MARTA conclusion.
“Putting a MARTA station there will virtually shut down 85,” Newton said, referencing the site near I-85 and Jimmy Carter Boulevard where the county would likely build a transit hub. “And it will just make things worse. Not a little worse, but a lot, lot worse.”
Economists and other scholars have long debated over whether or not public transportation actually reduces traffic congestion. The main argument to the contrary goes that, when one person decides to take transit, their place on the highway is simply filled by another eager driver.
A 2013 study by University of California-Berkeley scholar Michael Anderson refuted that stance, to a point. As online publication CityLab reported at the time, Anderson’s analysis of a Los Angeles transit strike found that congestion did decrease when more transit options were available — at least along major corridors that paralleled transit routes.
“The intuition is straightforward,” he wrote. “Transit is most attractive to commuters who face the worst congestion, so a disproportionate number of transit riders are commuters who would otherwise have to drive on the most congested roads at the most congested times.”
Gwinnett transportation director Alan Chapman said the ridership for Gwinnett’s current transit system — which includes seven local bus routes and five express routes to the Atlanta area — is about 1.5 million rides per year. The county hopes that, if its full transit plan were built over the next 30 years or so, ridership upon completion would be around 15.7 million rides per year.
Chapman could not estimate how that would translate, in terms of cars taken off the road.
Doug Turnbull, an anchor for Triple Team Traffic on News 95.5 FM and AM750 WSB, described lengthy delays on I-85 in Gwinnett as being “like clockwork.” But he added that he and colleagues have noticed that “just decreasing the amount of cars on the road by about 10 percent can decrease traffic delays by about 50 percent.”
For Taylor Drake, relief of any sort would be good.
He has the unenviable task of commuting from Lawrenceville to the Cumberland area every day. It takes an hour and 15 minutes or more, each way.
Given his ultimate destination, it’s unlikely Drake would use new Gwinnett transit offerings on a regular basis.
But, he said: “Anything will help.”
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