Does it really matter when Gwinnett holds its transit referendum?

In the end, semantics may be the only real difference in the two options that Gwinnett County now has for a future referendum on transit.

If Gwinnett opts to hold its transit referendum in November, residents would be voting on joining MARTA, the often maligned service that’s been operating for nearly 40 years.

If Gwinnett opts to hold its transit referendum sometime next year, they’d be voting on joining The ATL, a new regional transit authority that begins operations Jan. 1.

Once The ATL is up and running, MARTA will fall under its oversight. But in a suburban county with both a growing appetite for transit expansion and a long-held reluctance to join the existing MARTA system, the semantics involved could play a significant role in the decision when to hold a vote — and how that vote might turn out when it’s held.

“Frankly, I don’t know what the public would do” with a MARTA-specific referendum, Gwinnett Commissioner John Heard said this week.

House Bill 930, which still requires Gov. Nathan Deal's signature, was passed on the final day of the legislative session. It creates the 13-county metro transit region dubbed The ATL and gives each of those communities the ability to impose local transit-funding sales taxes of up to 1 percent for up to 30 years.

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The ATL board would oversee transit operations in the region, essentially combining the metro's handful of existing transit agencies. Any participating county's transit-related plans would have to be approved by the board to move forward.

As written, HB930 gves Gwinnett the option to go ahead and hold a referendum on transit expansion in November. But, since The ATL won’t technically exist yet, the ballot question would be specifically about joining MARTA. If Gwinnett waits until sometime in 2019, it could have a referendum that doesn’t directly reference MARTA, which the county has twice rejected in the past.

Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash was on the House Commission on Transit Governance and Funding, which helped shape the original HB 930. She said she's "not certain" there would be any difference in the long run whichever referendum route Gwinnett chooses.

“But I think that will make little or no difference in the long run for Gwinnett,” Nash said this week. “Our transit development process is focused on identifying projects that make sense both internally and for regional connectivity. I anticipate our projects will fit well with the transit plan adopted by the ATL Authority once it is operational.”

Heard, the county’s District 4 commissioner, said he’s a “firm believer in striking while the iron’s hot” and said he’s looking forward to “bringing the solutions for our [traffic] nightmare into reality.”

But he’s also struggled while considering what the best option might be, especially if finances are taken into account.

“You get on a train at the Atlanta airport and you ride it to the Mall of Georgia [in Buford] would be a great solution, if money was not an issue,” Heard said. ” … If there was funding available for that solution, then no question that would be the right solution. At this moment, I don’t know what the limits on our funding would be.”

Gwinnett’s history with local sales taxes does provide a starting point for estimating how much money could be collected for transit projects.

The one-cent SPLOST that Gwinnett voters approved in 2016 (which is designated for public projects like roads and parks) is projected to collect $950 million over its six-year lifespan. A 30-year transit-funding SPLOST, then, could produce five times that amount.

Federal and state dollars would also be in play.

“It’s a regional effort, and I just think the more people that can brainstorm, the more great minds, the better the outcome can be,” Lynette Howard, Gwinnett’s District 2 commissioner, said.

Gwinnett DOT director Alan Chapman has said the county’s comprehensive transit plan, which has been in the works for more than a year, is unlikely to include rail as a primary recommendation.

Bus rapid transit, a system of buses with dedicated lanes and fewer stops than traditional local routes, is likely to be the high-capacity option recommended, Chapman said during a recent briefing on the study. A BRT line, Chapman said, ideally would run in the Satellite Boulevard corridor on the north side of I-85 before eventually connecting to a "multimodal hub" on the western side of the county. That hub would, one way or another, connect to the existing MARTA station in Doraville.

Local bus service also could be expanded, with more Express bus service to different parts of the Atlanta area and the addition of rapid bus service, which is different from BRT in that it doesn’t always operate in dedicated lanes.

Gwinnett’s transit plan is expected to be finished in the coming months. The county commission is likely to wait until its completion to vote on scheduling a referendum.

“If Gwinnett votes to join the system, MARTA would work with the county to identify the transit services that best meet its needs,” MARTA spokeswoman Stephany Fisher said.