Deal puts nine buses on roads

LAWRENCEVILLE - New buses the county is receiving from a regional agency will be wrapped, but not with gift paper.

Instead, they will be wrapped with advertisements for Discover Mills mall.

A deal finalized Wednesday by the Georgia Regional Transportation Agency will let the shopping complex put ads on the buses, in exchange for bus riders getting to use 500 parking spots at the Lawrenceville-area mall.

More importantly, the arrangement means the nine Express buses will begin plying the interstate between Gwinnett County and Atlanta on Feb. 20, said GRTA Deputy Director Jim Ritchey.

GRTA has been trying to get the coaches on the road for more than a year, and parking was the last hurdle.

The buses will form two routes, which will join three Express routes already operated by Gwinnett County Transit.

"Express Service has been very well received by Gwinnett County citizens," Ritchey said. "Ridership on the existing routes has exceeded expectations, and we think these will be just as successful."

Gwinnett Transit began its Express Service in 2001, and its crimson buses use HOV lanes to minimize traffic delays as they ferry commuters between Gwinnett County and Atlanta during rush hour.

The three routes have steadily gained passengers, but ridership spiked after Hurricane Katrina caused gas prices to surge.

To alleviate bus overcrowding, the county began running buses more frequently in November, and it has taken buses off local routes and put them on the Express routes. About 1,000 passengers board the buses each morning.

The new buses from GRTA will form two new routes: one through the Midtown section of Atlanta, and the other to the Lindbergh Center MARTA station.

Unlike existing routes, one will have buses running throughout the day instead of just at rush hour.

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

The addition of a midday route will give Express riders another way home if they must leave work early, said county Transportation Director Brian Allen.

"That's something a lot of riders have told us we need," Allen said.

Gwinnett is getting the buses as part of an agreement with GRTA, although they will remain state property.

Gwinnett contributed a one-time payment of $3.6 million to operate the buses, and in return, the state is spending $40 million to widen portions of traffic-choked Ga. Highway 20.

Ten other counties struck similar agreements with GRTA and are receiving road funds in return for picking up part of the tab for Express buses GRTA is operating in their counties.

Those counties are Clayton, Cobb, Coweta, Douglas, Fulton, Forsyth, DeKalb, Henry, Paulding and Rockdale. All but DeKalb have gotten their buses.

In effect, the GRTA Express routes are the first step toward a regional bus network.

Because Gwinnett already had its own transit system, the GRTA buses will be merged into it. As such, they will have a color scheme similar to the county's crimson-and-gold color buses.

GRTA was forced to find parking for the Express buses it is sending Gwinnett because a county park-and-ride lot on North Brown Road just across from the mall is at capacity. The county lot opened in July 2005 with 554 parking spaces.

Art Sheldon, chairman of the Gwinnett Transit Advisory Board, said he thinks the new routes will funnel some riders from the existing ones, providing more badly needed space.

More information on the new routes, including their stops and times, can be found at www.expressga.com.