Gwinnett could extend heavy rail all the way to Gwinnett Place

A commuter prepares to board a MARTA train in December ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM AJC File Photo

A commuter prepares to board a MARTA train in December ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM AJC File Photo

Gwinnett's Board of Commissioners was briefed Tuesday on the final draft of the county's historic transit development plan — and the amount of heavy rail recommended was more than double what was suggested in previous versions.

If you factor in a bit of wishful thinking, that is.

The plan already included a recommendation for a roughly 4.5-mile heavy rail extension from the existing Doraville MARTA station into Gwinnett and the Norcross area.  The version of the plan presented Tuesday by Gwinnett Department of Transportation Director Alan Chapman and consultant Cristina Pastore went one step further.

It suggested extending nearly seven more miles of heavy rail from the planned transit hub near Jimmy Carter Boulevard all the way up to the Gwinnett Place Mall area, where the county has already acquired land to expand its existing transit station.

“It’s one of those things that, if we had the funding long-range, we think it would be a great improvement,” Chapman said. “Because you’re able to catch commuters before they get into that worst part of [I-85] from [Ga.] 316 or Pleasant Hill [Road] on down to I-285.”

The suggestion for a lengthier rail extension was partly a result of residents complaining that the original proposal didn’t go far enough, Pastore said. But the longer piece was only included in the transit plan’s “Long Range, Phase II” — a phase that, unlike the rest of the plan, is projected to take more than 30 years and has no specific funding source tied to it.

The rest of the roughly $5.4 billion plan is based on estimates of funding from state and federal sources, and on the county’s residents approving the new 30-year sales tax made possible by legislation passed earlier this year.

Each mile of heavy rail would likely cost at least $250 million, officials have estimated.

“We didn’t want people to confuse our fiscal responsibility for a lack of vision,” Pastore said.

County leaders said it will all probably come down to money.

The Board of Commissioners is likely to vote on adopting the plan — which is not binding but intended to be used as a sort of road map for future transit development — sometime next month. That vote would be the next step toward holding a countywide referendum on transit expansion as soon as this fall.

In addition to the initially suggested rail line from Doraville to a new "multimodal hub" near Norcross, the plan also suggests building multiple bus rapid transit lines, which generally run in dedicated lanes and have fewer stops than local bus service.

BRT lines have been proposed between the aforementioned multimodal hub and the Infinite Energy Center near Duluth; down Ga. 316 into Lawrenceville; and down U.S. 78 from the Snellville area into DeKalb County.

The plan calls for greatly expanding local bus service as well.

“We’ve really put a good balance into something that is economically feasible but still has a really good vision for what our transit system could become over the years,” Chapman said.

There has been confusion about when Gwinnett would need to call a referendum on transit expansion if it wants to hold a vote this November. But Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash reiterated Tuesday that the decision wouldn’t need to be made until sometime in August.

House Bill 930 technically says a referendum only needs to be called 30 days before Election Day, but Nash said the county would need more time to finalize ballots.