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Riders: Carpooling better alternative than higher fares

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett County transit riders came to Lawrenceville en masse Thursday to chide county officials for proposing a fare increase they say will price the system out of the range of many commuters.

Again and again, the 33 people who spoke at a public hearing said if the rates were raised, they would stop riding the bus.

"You're really deterring people from wanting to ride the transit system," Glen Appling said. "We're just going to start carpooling if it goes up that far."

The Gwinnett Transit Advisory Board is considering a proposal that would raise local rates by 25 cents, to $2, and increase the rates for express bus riders from $3 across the board up to $5 a trip, depending on the route's distance. The proposal would also eliminate discounts for buying multi-ride passes and change or eliminate some routes.

For some riders, the proposed change amounts to a 90 percent increase, as monthly passes rise from $100 to $190. The fares have not been increased since 2002.

"A 90 percent increase is very excessive," Julie Brand said. "You're trying to recoup your costs for six years. You can't all of a sudden decide to recoup all your costs at once."

Riders suggested that instead of raising fares so dramatically, officials consider phasing the increase in over time or providing connections to the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority's lines. They also said that since other systems with express commuter service have lower fares than Gwinnett does, the county must be doing something wrong.

"It's very evident to us that you cannot provide a manageable and economicable express and local bus service," Jeannette McDonald said, suggesting that the county turn its commuter service over to the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. "You need to forget about your express bus. It's a loser."

The county subsidizes its 666,000 express passengers at a rate of $3.25 a ride, Transit Director Phil Boyd said. The subsidy for 1.34 million local passengers is $1.60 per trip.

Jon Richards, chairman of the Gwinnett County Transit Advisory Board, said the group is trying to reduce the contribution the county makes to the system because of budget shortfalls.

More than 75 people attended the meeting, with many riders saying there would have been more if the public hearing had been better-advertised. From here, the board will have another public meeting before making a recommendation about the fares and route alterations to the county's Board of Commissioners.

Brian Allen, Gwinnett's transportation director, said the comments the board received Thursday were similar to ones the department has heard in the past. Comments will be accepted through Feb. 15.

"It does affect somebody's wallet, it affects their pocket book," Allen said. "I understand that people don't want a pay increase and I don't blame them for that."