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Gwinnett cities weigh in on transit plan proposal

Pedestrians board a Gwinnett County Transit bus at a bus center near Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth. County commissioners are considering options to expand transit service in the county. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) AJC FILE PHOTO
Pedestrians board a Gwinnett County Transit bus at a bus center near Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth. County commissioners are considering options to expand transit service in the county. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) AJC FILE PHOTO

Gwinnett County commissioners this week asked city leaders to weigh in on proposed transit projects as they consider whether to hold a transit referendum in November.

Representatives of 15 of the county’s 16 cities responded in person or via video feeds Thursday to ask questions and offer feedback about the county’s proposal, which includes 99 possible project options to choose from.

While there was more support for the projects than not, the most vocal representatives were those who wanted less transit.

Snellville Mayor Barbara Bender said she and her council supported a plan that would not extend heavy rail into the county. Commissioners are considering whether to extend MARTA's Gold Line to a planned transit hub at Jimmy Carter Boulevard or spend that money on additional bus-based routes.

As cities continue to build up their downtown areas, Bender said, bus-based transportation offers more flexibility. She also said she was in favor of more microtransit — on-demand small buses that transport people around an area. Dave Emanuel, the mayor pro tem, said extending MARTA wouldn’t meet residents’ needs.

"Heavy rail is obsolete," he said. "It makes no sense to expand the most expensive form of transit. It's a waste of money."

Grayson Mayor Allison Wilkerson said residents wouldn't object to no transit expansion.

“We’re that animal that’s perfectly fine without it,” she said.

Her comments provoked a bidding war, of sorts, with other leaders jokingly jockeying for the portions of transit projects that are slated to go to Grayson.

“We are the other animal,” Lawrenceville Mayor David Still said, saying he was comfortable with the projects on the list.

Sugar Hill City Manager Paul Radford, a member of the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority board, also said he was in favor of the proposed project list. On Wednesday, the board approved Gwinnett's proposal to modify the list. The meeting with cities was a required step for county commissioners if they choose to fund the transit projects through the ATL board's tax instead of through MARTA.

“Whatever Grayson doesn’t want, Sugar Hill does,” Radford said.

Gwinnett leaders must reduce the 99-project, $10.1 billion-list — including operating costs — to fit within their eventual budget. Then they'll decide by the end of July whether voters will see it on the ballot.

City leaders will also have several days to submit written comments on the projects. Only Braselton did not have representatives at the meeting.

The commission’s auditorium had most of its seats blocked to maintain COVID-19 social distancing measures. The podium and microphone were cleaned between speakers. Few attendees wore masks. Those who did pulled them down to speak.

Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said the decision on transit would be important for years to come.

Jace Brooks, a county commissioner, said he was glad the city leaders had been able to see the diversity of opinions presented.

“You get a feel for kind of the struggles that we have,” he said.