Staff Photo: John Bohn Gwinnett County Transit buses take on passengers at a bus stop on Satellite Road in Duluth Wednesday.
After years of proposals and ideas, officials have formed the 85 alternatives analysis committee to delve into transit options.
The $1 million study will kick off in a week with public hearings to begin the task of analyzing costs, benefits and possible routes of options such as light rail, bus-rapid transit or a heavy rail extension of the MARTA line.
While the citizens review group is tentatively scheduled to begin deliberations on Feb. 14, two hearings are set for the public to sound off.
The meetings are set for:
• 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 6 at the Gwinnett Village CID Office, 5855 Jimmy Carter Blvd., Suite 122, Norcross
• 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 9 at the Gwinnett Place Marriott, 1775 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth
LAWRENCEVILLE -- For Chairwoman Charlotte Nash, it's hard to believe Gwinnett's buses have been rolling for 10 years.
With the metro Atlanta community in trouble with the federal government for air quality issues, transit had to become a part of the county's transportation lexicon, Nash said, but even then the system didn't seem to harken a new era of suburban life.
"It was an acknowledgement that we were going to be treated as a more urbanized area by the feds, whether we thought that or not," said Nash, who was county administrator at the time. "I didn't even really think about the system itself but what the overall objective was," adding mobility options so federal funds would be available for road building.
But even on the first day that express buses rolled down the interstate in late 2011, it was obvious some drivers were ready and willing for a change.
Many of the routes into Atlanta had people standing in the aisles, happy to watch traffic instead of drive in it.
But the local routes that began in February of 2002 have been harder to tackle, Nash said, pointing out that ridership was a disappointment from the beginning.
In the past 10 years, the system has been tweaked, the routes have moved and the fares have been in flux. But Gwinnett's first foray into transit has yet to launch a new lifestyle for residents.
Some officials hope that could change soon, with the upcoming Interstate 85 alternatives analysis study leading the way.
Public meetings will begin in the week; then the 18-month-long study could give the first definitive answer to whether rail could work in Gwinnett.
Riding the bus
For the Rev. Harriet Bradley, Gwinnett's bus system came at the perfect time.
The Norcross woman has had a car at times, but she thought when the bus routes began she would no longer need one.
"I'm grateful that they do exist," Bradley said, adding that she used to have to walk or take a cab to the Doraville MARTA station to travel to Atlanta.
The buses have made errands like shopping easier, but when the economy took a big turn in 2008, officials cut the system, dropping Saturday service almost entirely.
A Walmart store is less than 10 miles away, but she would have to take three buses to get there -- and get home before the service stops at 7 p.m. weeknights.
"You end up going all around the world to get someplace," Bradley said.
She thinks advertising and marketing would boost ridership. But the biggest problem is that people making the decisions aren't riding the buses.
In fact, the bus system often makes it hard for the riders to come to hearings on the topic.
"These are just everyday people," she said. "You just need to make things accessible. ... It has to be a different mindset."
Chuck Warbington thinks that mindset has changed.
The Dacula man didn't pay attention to the bus system when it began, but when he became the director of the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District in western parts of the county six years ago, the need for public transit was apparent.
"You are dealing with urban issues, and you are dealing with a lot of traffic issues," he said, adding that transit is the only way to make revitalization work in areas where density is appropriate.
"In the mid-2000s, people were still very skittish over it, not necessarily because of the local bus service," Warbington said, adding that the complaint that urban systems like MARTA bring crime is prevalent but unfounded. "We are kind of limping through with a local bus service with a spine that is outside of the county. ... It works well for the little bit of connectivity you can get out of it."
For the past five years, members of the CID and the Gwinnett Place business group have been working to educate people about the needs of transit and dispelling myths.
The effort has paid off, Warbington said, with poll numbers increasing, especially in southern and western Gwinnett.
Nash said she isn't sure attitudes have changed in eastern portions of the county, which are more suburban and rural, and that is a problem since any transit system would likely have to be funded countywide.
But the CID members have worked hard to push for some kind of system connecting businesses along Jimmy Carter and Pleasant Hill, even the Gwinnett Center, to the Doraville MARTA station.
"When you talk about such a large transformation, it should take a long time to talk about," Warbington said of the years-long education process. "This is the closest we've been to transforming the southern part of the county to an urban business center."
With $100 million set aside in a transportation sales tax initiative on ballots in July, which could fund the earliest portions of a new system, Warbington said the time is ripe for the I-85 alternatives analysis, where a citizens group is slated to start studying options next month."We've heard all these ideas, but until its put on paper it's hard to say 'will you support it,' 'how does Gwinnett fit in?'" Warbington said. "It'll need a lot of debate. ... It is something that's very, very important."
Nash said she doesn't know what to expect from the study group.
"I don't really have a preconceived notion about it. ... I want them to explore lots of options very thoroughtly," she said. "There are different opinions, and everybody's got a dog in the fight."