Gwinnett commissioner announces official opposition to a MARTA vote

One Gwinnett commissioner announced Thursday his intention to vote against calling a referendum regarding the county joining MARTA, should the opportunity arise.

John Heard, whose District 4 covers the Buford and Lawrenceville areas, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that he would be opposed to such a referendum. In a new press release distributed Thursday by a local political consultant tied to his re-election campaign, Heard offered a more thorough explanation.

The Republican called MARTA a “tax-eating boondoggle” and suggested that any new rail would serve on a portion of the county.

“The rail service will be limited to the northern corridor – Norcross, Duluth and Suwanee,” Heard’s lengthy statement  said. “There will be little benefit to the middle and southern parts of Gwinnett: Lawrenceville, Snellville, Grayson, Braselton, Buford and Sugar Hill, even though those residents will be required to pay taxes for service they will receive little or no benefit from.”

New legislation adopted this year gave Gwinnett — and several other metro counties — the ability to ask voters to approve a 30-year, one-cent sales tax to fund transit. The legislation creates a regional transit authority called The ATL, but that agency doesn’t form until Jan. 1.

If Gwinnett County wants to vote on expanding transit before then, it would have to vote on formally joining MARTA.

Practically speaking, the county commission would have to hold its own vote on holding a MARTA referendum in August if it wants to have the question on ballots during November’s general election.

Earlier this month, the commission — minus Heard, who was out of town — voted to approve the county's new transit development plan. The $5 billion plan, which is not binding, suggested extending heavy rail from the existing Doraville MARTA station to the Jimmy Carter Boulevard/I-85 area in Gwinnett. It also presented the possibility of extending rail all the way to the Gwinnett Place area.

Even without Heard’s vote — or that of Commissioner Tommy Hunter, who has not made his intentions known — the five-person commission appears likely to have the majority necessary to call a referendum.

District 1 Commissioner Jace Brooks and District 2 Commissioner Lynette Howard have said they’re in favor  of a MARTA referendum if the contract reached with the agency is suitable. Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash has not explicitly stated a position but has largely driven the charge for transit expansion in the county.

Heard, a two-term incumbent, will face Democratic challenger Marlene Fosque in November’s general election.

“I will do everything I can to ease our traffic burden but I am convinced MARTA is not the answer,” Heard’s statement said. “Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb all have MARTA and their traffic is worse than Gwinnett’s’. Raising taxes without any real benefits is just irresponsible government.”

MARTA board chairman Robbie Ashe declined to comment on Heard’s statement.

—Staff writer David Wickert contributed to this story.