Gwinnett County leaders are proposing to add a new penny sales tax question on November 2024 ballots that would fund a massive transit expansion. The referendum would come after two consecutive transit votes to expand MARTA rail into Gwinnett failed in 2019 and 2020.
“They voted against MARTA,” said Ben Ku, the only current county commissioner who was on the board when voters nixed the last transit proposal. “This (proposal) doesn’t have any MARTA.”
Instead, the latest proposed tax would fund an overhaul of Gwinnett’s bus and microtransit system that would cost more than $17 billion, Transit Capital Program Director China Thomas said.
The plan would expand microtransit — an on-demand service that operates through an app — to cover the entire county by 2033. Gwinnett currently does not operate transit on Sundays. But under the new plan, microtransit would run seven days a week, Thomas said.
The plan would reconfigure bus routes and add high-frequency buses with queue jump lanes, along with technology that gives them priority at traffic signals.
It would create a bus rapid transit line from the Doraville MARTA station to Lawrenceville, stopping at the Gwinnett Place and Sugarloaf Mills shopping centers and the Gas South District, which has an arena and convention center. Vans would also run from the Mall of Georgia and Snellville to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Some bus routes would connect to MARTA rail stations at Doraville and Indian Creek. Some others would also run outside Gwinnett, to Tucker in DeKalb County or Johns Creek in north Fulton.
“This plan offers a completely new network of services,” Thomas said. “It would be a really big undertaking.”
The county commission is scheduled to vote next week on whether to send the new plan to the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority, which will need several months to review the plan and also must share the plan with Gwinnett’s city managers and mayors, Thomas said. The commission will likely decide in the spring whether to place the new sales tax on the November 2024 ballot.
Gwinnett County, already notorious for bad traffic, is projected to add 500,000 more residents by 2050. Without more transit investment, traffic delays would increase 59%, Thomas said.
Under the existing Ride Gwinnett transit system, only 11% of people and 28% of jobs are within a quarter-mile of a bus stop, Thomas said. The expansion would place 32% of people and 60% of jobs within a quarter-mile of a stop on a fixed route, but microtransit would be accessible to 100% of people and jobs.
Microtransit would operate in smaller zones, as it currently does in the Lawrenceville and Snellville areas, but riders could use it to feed into the larger transit system, Thomas said.
The Gwinnett County Department of Transportation is funded by property taxes, transit fares, federal grants and a penny sales tax already in effect that pays for capital projects countywide. Consumers who live outside Gwinnett pay about one-third of the current sales tax’s revenues, commissioners said.
An additional penny tax would place the burden of funding the transit expansion onto consumers, not solely Gwinnett property owners, officials said. Some funding would also come from federal and state sources, Gwinnett Department of Transportation Director Lewis Cooksey said.
Most of the plan’s estimated cost is for operations and additional staffing, Cooksey said, although the price tag also includes capital costs such as vehicles and new transfer stations.
“Without an additional funding source, we really can’t go much further,” he said.
County Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she supports calling a referendum next year.
“That is a board decision, but as the chairwoman, that is something I would be championing,” she said.
District 4 Commissioner Matthew Holtkamp, the board’s only Republican, praised the transit plan.
“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “Microtransit is really going to change minds, if we can do it right.”
County staff started from scratch to put together the expansion plan and did not pull from Connect Gwinnett, the proposal to join the MARTA system that voters rejected in 2019, Cooksey said.
“To us, that’s a failed plan and that’s in our past, and we’re looking to our future,” he said.