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Gwinnett commissioners still debate MARTA expansion as deadline nears

A Gwinnett County Transit bus travels along North Brown Road NW near a Gwinnett County Transit Park and Ride bus station in Lawrenceville. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) AJC FILE PHOTO
A Gwinnett County Transit bus travels along North Brown Road NW near a Gwinnett County Transit Park and Ride bus station in Lawrenceville. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) AJC FILE PHOTO

As the deadline to ask Gwinnett County voters to expand transit approaches, local leaders are still debating the basics of their plan, including whether a heavy rail extension from Doraville up I-85 should be part of the offering.

In a four-and-a-half-hour meeting Thursday, Gwinnett County commissioners heard details about four different proposals — the Connect Gwinnett plan that voters rejected last March, an updated plan approved by the Transit Review Committee, a version of that plan that eliminates a heavy rail MARTA extension and a plan created by Commissioner Ben Ku, called GEM. Four county commissioners participated in person, while consultants hosted the meeting over Skype.

At the end of it, Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said the group’s “brains are fried.”

“I think I’ve exhausted myself,” she said.

To get the measure on the ballot in November, county commissioners must approve a plan by April 7, leaders said previously. That will allow enough time for the ATL Board to approve any changes to the regional transit plan and for contracts to be negotiated, which must happen by the end of July.

But before any negotiations can commence, at least three commissioners have to agree on a plan. One, Commissioner Tommy Hunter, did not participate in Thursday’s meeting and said previously that he wouldn’t support efforts to get a transit tax on the ballot.

On Thursday, it wasn’t clear that commissioners wanted to push to meet the deadline.

“I don’t think any of these plans qualify as the best plan,” Ku said. He said he thought the county could have “a great plan with another year or two.”

If commissioners decided not to move forward with a transit vote, Nash said, “it would take a lot off my plate.”

But Cristina Pastore, a consultant with Kimley-Horn who has been leading the county’s discussions, warned leaders not to succumb to “analysis paralysis.” She said as a planner, she’s been working on the project for years.

“There’s always something better, but you run the risk of letting perfect be the enemy of great,” she said. “I also like to see things get implemented. I don’t want to plan indefinitely.”

Before the discussion moved to whether any vote should go forward at all, commissioners asked Pastore and her team to answer more questions comparing the viability of different options and tweaking offerings and routes. They were hesitant to eliminate anything, concerned that if they moved forward with any one proposal, they would be locked in to that plan for decades, even if technology or growth patterns changed.

Nash said she didn’t think that would be the case. If there was a rational basis for making changes, she said, there would likely be opportunities to do so.

Nash said she would be comfortable moving forward with a version of the Transit Review Committee's plan, which expands offerings compared to the Connect Gwinnett plan that was rejected last year. It's more aggressive, and in the short term would have two bus rapid transit routes, as compared to Connect Gwinnett's one, as well as three arterial rapid transit routes and seven flex zones, where residents could get on-demand rides. It adds service near Lilburn, Sugar Hill and Centerville that the original plan did not.

In the long term, that plan also increases connectivity to Stonecrest and Alpharetta and expands paratransit coverage. Kimley-Horn estimates show that the plan would reach about a third of the the county’s residents in 2050. About 60% of residents would be within a two-and-a-half-mile drive from a station.

The numbers are similar in the version of the plan that eliminates a MARTA extension to Jimmy Carter Boulevard. But buses would be expected to run more frequently.

“Right now, the big decision for me is whether we do the heavy rail connection or put it into other investments,” Nash said. “That is probably the biggest decision that I’m still wrestling with internally.”

Commissioners are slated to meet again next week to discuss further.