MARTA eyes expansion into county



LAWRENCEVILLE - Sixteen years after voters rejected the idea, MARTA officials will consider expanding the rail line into Gwinnett.

Responding to a call from revitalization leaders, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority board voted Wednesday to explore bringing the system to the suburban county.

Bruce Le'Vell, Gwinnett's representative on the board, requested the study. He believes the public will now accept the rail system to help clear congestion and bring businesses to struggling communities.

"If you sat on the top end of the perimeter in 1990, there was no traffic," he said. "The people didn't see the vision and the need."

Since then, Gwinnett has more than doubled in population. It is now the second-largest county in the state with 726,000 people.

The 46-mile MARTA system runs in the urban counties of Fulton and DeKalb. Last month, suburban Cobb County agreed to run bus service year-round. As average commute times in Gwinnett have lengthened to 31.5 minutes, many residents have expressed interest in expanded transit options.

"Every time we have a study, when the public comes in and draws where they'd like to see sidewalks or traffic lights, they always draw tracks," Le'Vell said of town hall meetings in the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District. He is also a member that board.

District leaders have already worked to increase police patrols and landscape the area that spans Interstate 85 in Norcross and Lilburn.

But CID Director Chuck Warbington said the community is missing out on redevelopment projects in part because MARTA access is lacking.

The General Motors plant in Doraville that is scheduled to close in 2008 is ripe for redevelopment because of a MARTA stop on the property, Warbington said, while the OFS Brightwave site along I-85 in Gwinnett has been passed over by developers.

"We're almost sitting there playing runner-up in the development race," Warbington said. "People are more interested in the GM site because of the Doraville MARTA station. ... We're in a state now where businesses are leaving; businesses are looking elsewhere because we don't have options. We want to put all the options on the table."

Le'Vell said if MARTA comes to the county, he wants stops to be more than just train platforms. Stations should have live, work and play centers around them, he said.

At Wednesday's meeting, the MARTA board agreed to pay up to $50,000 for the study, with the Gwinnett Village CID adding another $50,000. The nearby Gwinnett Place CID will also be included in the study, but won't bear the cost.

Joe Allen, director of the Duluth CID, said MARTA may provide a viable travel option in an area where proposed high-rises would mean denser developments and the county is experiencing a demographic shift.

"We need to look at transportation alternatives," Allen said. "We cannot remain as automobile dependent as we are."

Still, he said, the rail line might not be a solution.

The 1990 route, which brought tracks north along Buford Highway, may no longer make sense, Le'Vell said, so engineers will determine where the route could go. They will also look at the extension's price tag and how to pay for it, including the possibility of a public-private partnership, Warbington said.

When the study is complete, possibly in the spring, Le'Vell said it will be presented to decision-makers with the Norcross City Council and Gwinnett Board of Commissioners.

"We'll put it in the people's hands," Le'Vell said. "At least we'll have a good foundation for education."