Gwinnett County residents are no stranger to traffic congestion.
Whether it’s on Interstate 85 or some on some of the major local roads, residents have not been shy in the past when it comes to grumbling about how much time it takes to get around.
It showed in a study the Gwinnett Chamber did in 2015 that showed residents supported MARTA expansion into Gwinnett —even if support for funding it wasn’t as great — and then later that year when the Gr8 Exchange on Transportation took place.
And, with Gwinnett expected to become Georgia’s most populous county — with a population of 1.35 to 1.4 million people — by 2040, county officials say the people get around is an issue that needs to be looked at.
Transit is part of what needs to be looked at, according to Gwinnett County transportation director Alan Chapman.
“We know that, over that time frame, transit needs to be something we really plan for,” Chapman said during a recent meeting with the Daily Post. “It takes time a long time to develop some type of transit options, so we need to work on it now.”
That projected growth, and the congestion that already exists, is something county officials hope their ongoing Comprehensive Transit Development Plan will address. Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash announced the study during her State of the County address in February and the work is now underway.
The study is an outgrowth of the ongoing Comprehensive Transportation Plan update. Chapman said input gathered as part of that plan’s update showed officials there was a need to looking at transit.
“One thing that it told us is that we need to have a balanced transportation system to address all of these needs, but we’re pretty well-established with our road and bridge improvements through our SPLOST,” Chapman said. “But, it did tell us that we really needed to dig deeper into transit to understand what investments we may make in the future.”
What will the transit study do?
Chapman said the study will look at an array of projects designed to improve transit in the county, as well as other issues such as efficiency and coverage areas on the existing Gwinnett County Transit system.
“We want to look long-range because a lot of these investments take a long time to develop,” Chapman said. “But we’ll also look short and mid-range at what we can do in the interim. We’ll also look at our fare structure, look at ways we can maybe incentivize our riders to ride more frequently or to attract new riders and then the all-important funding question.”
The county will look at comparable communities around the country, including some that are further along in their transit development, to see what could work for Gwinnett.
There will also be a public input component. A group of key stakeholders was gathered for a meeting to discuss transit last month and officials are now moving on to collect public input over the next two to three months.
Some of their plans on how to gather input include taking bus tours to events around the county, visiting public parks and offering online surveys, as well as holding public meetings to discuss recommendations.
“This won’t go on as long as the CTP did,” Chapman said. “We’re looking at having most of the deliverables completed by the end of the year, and then going back out to the public at the beginning of next year with some final recommendations.”
Many residents want to see Gwinnett’s transit system expanded
As the county’s officials have looked at transportation in the last couple of years, one of the questions they asked residents through surveys was whether Gwinnett County Transit provided enough coverage.
The answer? More service is needed. At least that was what 66 percent of the respondents said.
Another 16 percent said the current coverage was adequate while seven percent said the system provided too much coverage. Eleven percent of the people who responded to the survey said they weren’t sure.
When survey participants were asked what kind of transit improvements they thought the county should make, high capacity transit within a dedicated space, such as rail service or bus rapid transit, came out on top.
The next two most popular recommendations were improved local bus service (24 percent) and improved express bus service (22 percent).
“Really the improvements sort of go together, the local system would feed, or could feed, the express or the premium service in dedicated right of way,” Chapman said. “That’s one thing I think we need to stress is that you’ve got to have a complete system, not just one particular transit mode.”
The I-85 issue
The interstate plays a key role in Gwinnett’s transportation network.
County officials estimate about 260,000 Gwinnettians work outside the county, while about 185,000 people who live elsewhere in the metro area commute to jobs that are located in Gwinnett.
“The I-85 corridor is obviously, if you look at the job concentration as well population density, it’s a logical area to cover with transit,” said Nash, who is serving on a state House of Representatives transit study committee. “Our express service is primarily on the I-85 corridor. I-85 - we know that there’s going to have to be other improvements on I-85.”
But the reasons why county officials see I-85 as an important issue go beyond the county’s growing population. Nash said it’s also an important trucking corridor and county officials are keeping an eye on the ongoing expansion of the Port of Savannah.
“(Truck traffic) just continues to go up on the 85 corridor,” she said. “The expansion of the port is going to have an impact on that. We’re just going to see more trucks.”
The regional T-SPLOST that was rejected by voters in 2012 would have provided Gwinnett with $95 million for an I-85 transit corridor study, including a look at rail expansion from Doraville to the Infinite Energy Center.
Gwinnett is now looking partnering with the Georgia Department of Transportation to possibly split the cost half-and-half to study possible improvements on the I-85 corridor.
“We’re talking long term now and big expansive kinds of projects,” Nash said. “I can’t disagree with the fact that 285 needs the improvements that are fixing to be done on it, I-75 certainly needed its improvements, both north and south, but I-85 is just about saturated.
“You can look at the projected population growth in the county and (see) we’ve got to get something done on I-85.”
Funding remains a key question though
While the transit study could turn up plenty of ideas on how to improve transit in Gwinnett, there’s still one one question it will have to keep in mind: How will the county pay for it?
“It can be very expensive,” Chapman said. “Its one thing to find the dollars for the capital improvement, but we’ve also got to look long term at operating the system, and how expensive that would be and how it would be funded continuously.”
He later added federal funding for transit projects would need to be looked at as well.
One option for at least paying for the infrastructure could be a Gwinnett-only T-SPLOST. The single-county transportation-specific SPLOSTs were approved by the General Assembly two years ago, after many of the regional T-SPLOSTs proposed across the state, including one for the Atlanta region, were rejected by voters in 2012.
Nash said there are some issues with the state’s new county-specific T-SPLOST set up though.
“It’s probably a little premature to even try to tie it down right now,” she said. “The difficulty with a T-SPLOST, a single county T-SPLOST, is that right now the legislation limits that to five years and we really need more assurance, I think, related to having it in place for a longer period of time than that.”
The Georgia Transit Authority and the Georgia Municipal Association have been proponents of longer T-SPLOSTs. In its 2016 list of legislative priorities, the GTA said short transportation SPLOSTs make it hard to compete for federal grants that can be used in big, transit-related capital projects, such as rail investments.
The group also said 20 to 30-year commitments are typically needed for public-private partnerships on such projects.
In January, GMA said it would support a change in state law that would let communities implement T-SPLOSTs that could last as long as 20 years to fund transit and rail projects. The Association of County Commissioners of Georgia has said it supports adding more flexibility to T-SPLOSTs.
Nash said that while there was some movement in the legislature this year on possibly extending the length of the T-SPLOSTs, it ultimately didn’t pan out.
The uncertainty of what will happen at the state level means it’s unclear when a public vote on transit options in Gwinnett — something Nash proposed in her State of the County speech — will happen.
“We want to see what the legislature does, if anything, to maybe extend the amount of time for a single-county T-SPLOST,” Nash said. “There are a lot of legislators (on the House study committee) so hopefully I’ll get some insight in terms of what they’re thinking for a timetable.”