Crowds on the bus go round and round

LAWRENCEVILLE - Despite beefed-up service, Gwinnett Transit still has overcrowded buses on its popular express routes that carry rush-hour commuters to Atlanta.

A new park-and-ride lot that opened last year near Discover Mills mall is also at capacity, leaving some riders with no place to leave their vehicles.

Gwinnett transit officials hoped that running buses more frequently on the Express lines would eliminate standing room-only rides, but that didn't happen.

Although fewer people are having to stay on their feet during the 45-minute ride, some still don't have a seat, said Gwinnett Transit Director Tim Collins.

"We're still faced with overcrowding, and we have people standing on trips," Collins said. "It's a fortunate problem to have, but it's also unfortunate.

"It can be frustrating because you don't want people to have to stand."

The problem has been magnified since Hurricane Katrina caused gas prices to spike, which in turn prompted more people to take the crimson buses to work.

Although gas prices have since dropped, ridership gains made by the bus system have not.

"Ridership can't go up any more because there is no place to put people," Collins said.

There is also no place for additional vehicles at a park-and-ride lot that opened on North Brown Road beside Discover Mills in July 2004. The lot with 554 parking spaces cost $1.1 million in state and federal funds.

Discover Mills does not allow overflow parking on its property, and Collins said he has been contacted by angry riders asking where they should park.

However, there is ample room at two other park-and-ride lots used by the Express buses - one on Ga. Highway 20 and Interstate 985 near Buford, the other at Indian Trail Road and Interstate 85 in the Norcross area, Collins said.

The county began running buses more frequently on two of its three Express routes on Monday.

It is paying for the increased service with money it saved by trimming service on a local route that runs through the Mall of Georgia and Buford. That route was cut back because of poor ridership.

The county is also using part of the $1.1 million in savings to redo the insides of 10 local buses it has been using on the Express routes. The buses are getting luggage racks and more comfortable seats like the normal Express coaches have.

The Express routes could get some extra help during the holidays.

Mass transit ridership generally drops during the holiday months, and the county is on track to get more buses that will form two new routes to Atlanta, Collins said.

Gwinnett is receiving the 10 coaches as part of an agreement with the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

One route would carry passengers to the Lindbergh Center MARTA station or some point nearby, while the other route would run to the Midtown section of Atlanta.

Buses on both routes would come and go every 30 minutes during the morning and evening, but the Midtown route would also run each hour during the rest of the day, or during what are known as "off-peak hours."

GRTA hopes to have the buses running by late December or early January, said GRTA spokesman William Mecke.

The holdup is a contract GRTA is finalizing with Discover Mills that will let riders on the routes leave their vehicles in the mall's parking lot Mecke said.

GRTA expects ridership to be strong on the two lines, Mecke said.

Regionwide, boardings on GRTA buses have not decreased with the gas prices. They actually increased in October, Mecke said.