Gwinnett County has scheduled a series of open houses (see schedule below) to present information about the transit proposal that will be implemented if voters approve the referendum on the March 19th ballot. If the referendum is approved, transit expansion will be funded by a one cent sales tax that will last for 30 years. The tax is projected to raise $5 billion during that time.
There has been a lot of incorrect information circulated about the county’s plan, resulting in a host of questions and concerns, many of which are unfounded. The open houses will provide opportunities to not only learn legitimate facts about future plans, but to ask questions and voice opinions.
Clearly, Gwinnett County needs some means of reducing road congestion. However, if the referendum passes and the proposed plan is followed, it will probably be decades before county residents will see any reduction in the number of cars clogging the roads. A cornerstone of plans approved by the county calls for a four to five mile extension of heavy rail service from the existing Doraville station to Jimmy Carter Blvd. At a cost of $250 per mile, that project will cost between $1 billion and $1.3 billion and take at least a decade to become a reality.. The selling point for this part of the project is it would allow the construction of a multi-modal hub. (Lack of available land makes construction of a hub in Doraville virtually impossible.)
The billion-plus dollars used to construct a heavy rail extension will likely have little effect at easing traffic throughout much of the county; it will be convenient only to people living in the area, or close to Interstate 85. By the time people drive from Snellville, Grayson, Loganville, Dacula and portions of Lawrenceville, they could be well on their way to their destination. Time issues get even more unfriendly if that destination is not close to an existing MARTA station. Another issue is that by the time construction begins, heavy rail will be even more of an outmoded, under-utilized form of transit.
On the other hand, the county’s trial micro transit project in Snellville has been an overwhelming success- so much so that the original trial period has been extended. Certainly, part of that success has been driven by the fact that there’s no charge to use the service. But transit riders are far more likely to pay for door-to-door service than they are for a service that requires them to drive to a heavy rail station, and then take a taxi or ride-hailing service to travel from a MARTA station to their final destination.
For a $1 billion price tag, the county could be blanketed with micro transit buses that typically carry 12- 15 passengers. Buses suitable for micro transit sell for approximately $150,000, which translates to a lease rate of approximately $20,000 per year. Add in $60,000 for driver’s salary, $8,000 for fuel and $12,000 for miscellaneous and oh-we-forgot-about-that expenses, and the tab comes to $100,000. At that cost, $1 billion would pay for the operation of 625 micro transit buses for 16 years. And that’s without any income from fare collections or subsidies. (Virtually all public transit systems are subsidized. In 2017, MARTA received over $520 million of its $668 million operating budget in sales and use taxes and federal revenue.)
Micro transit, isn’t the only option that should be used. Conventional bus routes and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT- often called light rail on rubber tires) are other vital parts of an overall transit solution. – especially with autonomous vehicles rapidly entering the transportation mainstream.
One possible scenario for the future includes autonomous micro transit vehicles, picking up passengers from a number of dispersed locations, then linking up to travel together along BRT or limited access lanes to or from downtown Atlanta or other remote location. After leaving the limited access lanes, the vehicles would disperse to deliver passengers to their desired locations.
However, such futuristic travel options will be difficult to achieve, if the lion’s share of funding is spent on the technology of the past.