LAWRENCEVILLE - Commuter buses should be making rush-hour runs between Snellville and Atlanta by late 2006.
The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority has begun looking for park-and-ride lots where passengers could board the buses that would almost certainly ply U.S. Highway 78.
The bus line has been in GRTA's long-range plans for some time, but in recent weeks the agency made a decision to start the route next year.
"Nothing is firm, but we are shooting for September of '06," said GRTA spokesman William Mecke.
The timeframe hinges on GRTA's ability to find churches or shopping centers that will let bus riders leave their vehicles in their parking lots, Mecke said.
Those familiar with GRTA's efforts said one potential park-and-ride spot is a shopping center east of the U.S. 78/Ga. Highway 124 intersection. Another boarding point under consideration would be in the Park Place area near the DeKalb County line, they said.
Mecke cautioned that most details about the route remain unknown, including its destination. He said it could stop near Emory University where numerous employers are located and then head into Atlanta. Or it could stop at the Kensington MARTA station or some other MARTA rail stop in DeKalb County.
What is known is that at least some residents are interested in taking a bus up and down U.S. 78.
"We've gotten plenty of requests that we start service there," Mecke said.
GRTA has no ridership estimates for the route, but similar Gwinnett County bus lines that ferry commuters up and down Interstate 85 have proven popular
Passengers wanting to avoid high gas prices or stressful rush-hour drives have flocked to the maroon express buses in such numbers that county commissioners recently had to increase the service.
"I believe there is demand (on U.S. 78) just like there has been in the rest of the county," said Art Sheldon, who chairs the Gwinnett Transit Advisory Board.
The buses would be operated by Gwinnett County, which is getting the coaches as part of a deal it made with the state.
Under the deal, Gwinnett is contributing a one-time payment of $3.6 million to buy and operate the buses. And in return, the county is getting $40 million from the state to spend on widening portions of traffic-choked Ga. Highway 20.
Snellville Mayor Jerry Oberholtzer, who knows what a rush-hour drive on U.S. 78 is like from when he worked in Atlanta, said city residents will benefit from having Express bus service.
"It gives people another option besides driving their cars, and I'm all for giving people options for getting back and forth to work," Oberholtzer said.
It can also be used as a selling point for the city, he said.
White-collar jobs are located around Emory University, and workers there could live in Snellville knowing they have the option of taking an Express bus to work, Oberholtzer said.
"Most of those people come from urban areas, and they are accustomed to bus service or mass transit," Oberholtzer said.
"This is a chance for them to come out to Snellville and put their children in our good schools. We have everything to offer when it comes to retail, and they can commute back and forth by bus and use their laptops or read during the ride."
A business organization trying to revitalize the U.S. 78 commercial corridor and improve property values also thinks express bus service will be a good addition - one that will benefit both businesses and residents.
"I think we'll see strong ridership on the 78 corridor," said Brett Harrell, executive director of the Highway 78 Community Improvement District.
"We have tremendous volumes of traffic coming out of Walton County, and I would imagine a fair number of those people might stop on the east side of Snellville and pick up the bus there."