Fulton County mayors say transit future centers on Gwinnett MARTA vote

A lot is riding on Gwinnett County's March 19 vote to allow MARTA to expand into the northern suburbs — even beyond Gwinnett.

At a Friday meeting where Fulton County mayors discussed their own plans for transit expansion, the topic quickly turned to what Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann called "the elephant in the room."

“If that doesn’t pass, we all need to take a step back,” she said. “What we’ve done is very important, but what happens in Gwinnett is the next big step for all of us.”

Proposals in Fulton County include bus rapid transit lines up Ga. 400, across I-285 and along South Fulton Parkway. But Fulton leaders worried that if Gwinnett County voters rejected transit expansion, it could mean trouble for their plans, too.

Union City Mayor Vince Williams even went so far as to ask how he and others could help get out the vote in the suburbs more than 30 miles away.

“We have to make sure this vote passes,” he said. “If we don’t do that, all of this is for naught.”

And Roswell Mayor Lori Henry said the result of Gwinnett's vote would color decisions that are made in Fulton County well into the future. Henry said she hopes the Gwinnett vote goes through because "we've been paying for it for 40 years."

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“If nothing changes, I can’t go back to my voters to ask for more,” she said. “… If Gwinnett doesn’t come in, we’ll have to start a new conversation.”

Outside the Capitol Friday, Gwinnett County Chairman Charlotte Nash said she had no comment on Fulton leaders' concerns about her voters' plans.

“I don’t want to jinx anything,” she said.

While mayors across the board are in favor of expanding transit options, the exact look of the final proposal has not been determined. All want to make sure that voters feel the plan would be beneficial in their cities.

County leaders will meet again before the end of May to decide whether they can put a measure to raise sales taxes by 0.2 percent on the ballot in November. That proposal, if approved, could raise $1.2 billion for transit over 30 years.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said he thought it would be a challenge to get the measure on the ballot a year from now without more concrete plans. In north Fulton, leaders want to make sure there's a timeline for a plan that would create an east-west line connecting Tucker to Smyrna, and going through Sandy Springs.

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"If I'm going to ask them for an extra two tenths of a cent, I've got to be able to show them what the impact on mobility and congestion relief is going to be," Paul said.

In south Fulton, there’s concern that adding the I-285 proposal to the formal plan would strip away money needed to pay for other projects. With the I-285 plan, there would be less money available for bus lines on Holcomb Bridge, Old Milton Parkway, Roosevelt Highway and Fulton Industrial Boulevard.

Mayors in the south part of Fulton County said they were worried about equity, and expressed concern that the bulk of the discussions centered on Ga. 400 and the north end of I-285.

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Their area has long drawn the short straw, said Bill Edwards, the mayor of South Fulton. He said while he supports expansion, he wants to make sure his area benefits.

“I don’t want to be left behind in south county,” he said.

Tom Reed, the mayor of Chattahoochee Hills, said bringing transit to the south part of the county could be a boon across Fulton.

“The reality is, the airport is the biggest economic driver in the state,” he said. “As a landing place for economic development, it’s obvious.”

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