Dems accuse Gwinnett of playing politics with MARTA referendum delay

Gwinnett County’s Board of Commissioners held one historic vote early Wednesday morning, approving a contract with MARTA.

And then, with a second vote, the commission delayed a public referendum on the issue — a surprise move that raised questions about the future of a transit vote and about the deeper motivations of those involved.

During a special-called 8 a.m. meeting, Gwinnett’s Republican county commission voted 4-1 to approve a contract with MARTA for future transit services.

It then voted unanimously to give Gwinnett voters the chance at a referendum on joining MARTA — during a special election in March and not during this fall's general election as previously suggested.

The later date has drawn the ire of many of the dozens of local officials and transit advocates gathered for the meeting. Accusations, which were denied by commissioners, immediately started flying.

“When you’ve got time to put this on a November ballot, and you wait until March?” state Rep. Dewey McClain, a Democrat from Lawrenceville, said. “That is political.”

Democrats and others say pushing back the transit referendum is designed to reduce Democratic turnout during the Nov. 6 general election. That election includes hotly contested races for governor; a congressional seat in Gwinnett; state legislative seats, and two spots on the county commission.

“What they want to do is to put in March when nobody will be interested,” said Gabe Okoye, the chairman of Gwinnett’s Democratic Party. “And then the few people who will be interested are those who will always be opposed to it.”

Commissioners, who last week added a referendum on earlier Sunday drink sales to November's ballots, denied having any political motivation. Chairman Charlotte Nash said it was important to have as much support from her fellow commissioners as possible.

“I think the same opportunity exists for every single voter in the county to register their opinion no matter what the date of the referendum is,” Nash said. “And I believe that this issue will bring people to the polls to register that opinion.”

Though long a Republican stronghold, Gwinnett’s growing Democrat-leaning minority population has made this county of nearly one million residents an important political battleground at every level of government. Hillary Clinton carried Gwinnett in 2016, the first time a Democrat had won the county since Jimmy Carter’s first election.

Two commissioners – John Heard and Lynette Howard – are up for election in November and both face Democratic opponents. Heard had previously announced his opposition to the measure, while Howard had tentatively given her support.

Both voted for a March referendum on Wednesday.

Howard said it was important to slow down the fast-moving process. Heard said he still had reservations but that the transit issue “deserves its own ballot.”

“It will take partisan politics out of it,” Heard said. “It’s an important issue that needs to stand on its own.”

The move to March was a dramatic about-face. Just two days before the decision, the county announced commissioners would consider putting the MARTA vote on the November ballot.

One measure of just how shocking the turn of events was: On Monday, MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe said he and his colleagues were “very much look forward to the outcome of Wednesday’s meeting.”

On Wednesday, he initially declined to comment on the commission’s vote.

Hours later, a statement was issued on his behalf.

“In the months ahead,” it said, in part, “we look forward to sharing information with all Gwinnett County stakeholders about the proven benefits of investing in mass transit and MARTA’s solid record of providing safe, convenient, affordable and cost-effective transportation services to millions of our customers across metro Atlanta over the last 40 years.”

The MARTA Board is set to take up the contract Thursday. It’s unclear whether the board will proceed with the vote as planned.

Moving the vote to March could also trigger additional hurdles. In May, Gov. Nathan Deal signed legislation that creates a new regional board to oversee transit planning and funding in 13 metro Atlanta counties, including Gwinnett.

The law includes provisions that allow Gwinnett County to enter into a contract with MARTA. But it specifies that, if that contract is enacted after Jan. 1, 2019, the transit service envisioned in the contract must be approved by the new regional board called The ATL.

That board likely won’t be up and running until January – raising concerns among transit advocates about whether Gwinnett could win approval for its transit plan in time for a March referendum.

Nash said she’s still “very comfortable” with the county’s current approach.

“I think it’s probably the best way to make sure that we integrate with the regional transit system that already exists,” she said. “Even with The ATL, the provision is MARTA is going to be the provider of heavy rail. … So I think this makes a lot of sense.”

The contract

The potential contract between Gwinnett and MARTA is just 11 pages long. But it provides several provisions to protect the use of Gwinnett sales tax revenue, county officials said.

Those provisions include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Transit sales taxes collected in Gwinnett would be returned directly to Gwinnett County by the state. The county would then make payments to MARTA, as needed, for projects.
  • "All proceeds must be used for the benefit of Gwinnett," county officials said.
  • MARTA cannot issue debt to cover the cost of Gwinnett projects without Gwinnett's approval — meaning money raised by Gwinnett cannot be pledged to projects without a go-ahead from the county.
  • All "fixed asset capital projects" in Gwinnett have to be approved by the county.
  • Gwinnett will have three appointees to the MARTA board, which currently has 10 members.

If approved in March, collection on the new one-penny sales tax would begin July 1, 2019 and continue until July 1, 2057, a span of more than 39 years. It could north of $5 billion.

For the first six years of the contract, the county said, it would agree to pay 29 percent of its penny sales tax revenue to MARTA. That would cover the cost of MARTA taking over and expanding Gwinnett’s existing bus system, which would happen “as soon as practical,” as well as operations and maintenance for other parts of the system.

The contract designates the county’s already-existing transit development plan as the source of future projects.

The $5.4 billion plan, adopted in July by the Board of Commissioners, includes recommendations to build a heavy rail connection from the existing Doraville MARTA station to a new "multimodal hub" constructed somewhere in the area of Jimmy Carter Boulevard and I-85. Longer-term plans suggested possibly extending rail from that hub all the way to Gwinnett Place Mall some seven miles away.

Other recommendations in the plan include greatly expanded local bus service; several bus rapid transit (BRT) lines, which make fewer stops that local service and generally operate in dedicated lanes; and an extensive network of “rapid bus,” which operates like BRT but without the dedicated lanes. Several new park-and-rides and Express bus routes are also suggested.

Chuck Warbington, a longtime transit advocate, chairman of the county planning commission and Lawrenceville city manager, said Gwinnett’s vote on a MARTA contract “should not be overshadowed by a four-month delay in the vote.”

“I have no doubt that the referendum will pass even in a special called vote,” Warbington said.