Gwinnett may expand bus service, but no plans for rail

Terrell Lee makes $12 an hour now, working in a warehouse off Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road. He had a chance earlier this year to take a better job — $16 an hour and first shift — but he had to turn it down. Gwinnett County Transit couldn’t have gotten him to work.

As it is, Lee takes a bus just part of the way from his Norcross home.

“The bus don’t go that far, so I walk (part of the way),” he said. “It’s frustrating.”

Transportation, and specifically public transit, has been gaining traction across Gwinnett County in recent months. This spring, the county’s Chamber of Commerce released a poll showing 63 percent of likely voters said they were in favor of expanding MARTA into Gwinnett. In August, a survey called the Great Exchange showed more than half of those who responded wanted trains or buses as a transportation option.

The county’s transportation director has requested money to restore Gwinnett’s bus service to its pre-recession, 2007 levels. And for the first time next year, Gwinnett and other metro Atlanta counties will have the option to consider a transportation-specific local option sales tax that could help pay for transit and other travel needs.

Despite percolating interest, though, Gwinnett County chairman Charlotte Nash said it is still too soon for the county to take a large step forward when it comes to public transportation. In 2016, she said, the focus must be on renewing SPLOST, not on a new, transportation-focused tax.

“Quite honestly, I’d just as soon not be the first. I’m not so proud that I’m unwilling to learn from other people’s mistakes,” Nash said of the referendum.

And who knows — with the advent of self-driving vehicles and services like Uber, Nash said, the transportation needs of Gwinnett County and the region could quickly change. People may be less interested in rail, she said, if they can relax in a private pod.

“It does open up a whole other avenue of thought process on transportation,” Nash said. “We’re continuing to look at all the angles.”

In comments on the Great Exchange survey, some people who live, work or travel through Gwinnett were still adamantly opposed to transit. “Don’t just have train envy,” one wrote. Others simply typed, “No to MARTA.”

But those comments were outpaced by those requesting access to the metro transit system, to commuter rail, to expanded bus service and high-speed trains.

Even those who, in the past, had expressed distaste for transit are starting to change their minds, said Chuck Warbington, director of the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District and organizer of the Great Exchange. Some, in more rural areas of the county, are tiring of their long commutes. Others, seeing the potential for development around stations, care less about transit but are eager for good jobs close to home that they can still drive to.

And as Gwinnett continues to attract residents from around the country and the world, more people are coming from places where they’re used to having options about how to get around, Dacula mayor Jimmy Wilbanks said.

“The appetite is better for it,” he said. “If we’re going to be a world-class city, like Atlanta, we’ve got to have transit.”

Some employers, like NCR, are citing a lack of public transportation among the reasons they’re leaving the suburbs for downtown. Gwinnett’s residents and employees, in comments through the Great Exchange, expressed concern about the county falling behind.

Gwinnett is starting the process of updating its comprehensive transportation plan, which will take 18 months. The existing bus system, at least, will play a role in that document but the need for a forward-looking vision is strong, Warbington said.

“If we don’t plan for transit, we’re making a huge mistake,” he said. “People need to speak. Elected officials will follow the voice of the people.”

But only some elected officials have the power to make big changes. Even with the support of businesses and the Chamber, its Convention and Visitors Bureau and some of its mayors, it’s county officials who must take the leap.

Norcross mayor Bucky Johnson, who is in favor of expanded transit options, cautioned that leaders should work together for whatever efforts may transpire.

“You don’t want a half-baked effort,” he said. “If you take something to a referendum that’s not fully thought out, you’re going to have it handed back to you.”

Nash, the county chairman, noted that the benefits of the current bus system is that it is not on a track that can’t be moved. After cutting service by 20 percent during the recession, the county will consider a request from transportation director Alan Chapman to add one local route and three express routes to the current lineup, a move he said “would provide some services that our citizens need.”

“We have so few buses and there are such big gaps in time between them, its hard to use them,” said Tanya Moore, who lives in Norcross. “You need more routes to go to places people want to go to.”

If the bus routes are more robust, Nash said, demand may be higher. Still, cost is a concern. And Nash cautioned against pivoting too quickly toward trends, like transit-oriented development, that she said may not hold up in the future and could saddle the county with debt.

“I’m a little more skeptical of that than others are. I’ve seen too many development fads come and go,” she said. “I’m not one to think we need to jump on whatever the latest fad is without telling whether it’s lasting.”

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