After weeks of town halls, Facebook debates and get-out-the-vote campaigns, election day is finally here for Gwinnett County’s historic MARTA referendum.
More than 32,000 Gwinnett voters have already cast early ballots and tens of thousands more are expected to hit the polls Tuesday. By the end of the day, the county will have charted the course for its public transportation future — and helped steer the region-wide debate in one direction or another.
The issue is likely to be decided by a tight margin.
But what, exactly, are voters deciding?
Below, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution explains the ballot question and everything its passage would mean — including several aspects that have been topics of both discussion and confusion.
What the ballot says — and what it means
The ballot that Gwinnett voters will face Tuesday includes this single question: “Gwinnett County has executed a contract for the provision of transit services, dated as of August 2, 2018. Shall this contract be approved? YES __ NO __”
It does not mention MARTA or a new 1 percent sales tax, but make no mistake: Both are very much involved.
A “yes” vote would be a vote in favor of consummating the pending contract negotiated by Gwinnett County and MARTA. The contract would allow MARTA to take over Gwinnett’s current transit operations and dramatically expand them according to a 30-year plan created by the county.
A “yes” vote is also one in favor of Gwinnett residents and visitors paying a new penny sales tax until 2057 to help cover the cost of said transit expansions.
A “no” vote would kill the contract. If the county wanted to call another referendum in the future, the contract would have to be renegotiated.
Gwinnett currently has a 6 percent sales tax. Approval of the referendum would make it 7 percent.
The new tax rate would be collected starting April 1.
What’s in the plan?
The county’s transit plan is based on an estimated $5.5 billion in sales tax collections, plus billions more in federal and state funds and fare collections. The county is not restricted from using other funding sources at its discretion.
It includes a roughly five-mile rail extension from the existing Doraville MARTA station to a new multimodal hub that would be built just off I-85 and Jimmy Carter Boulevard in Gwinnett. The rail connection has gotten much of the public’s attention and would be a large chunk of the financial commitment. It would take 15 to 20 years to build.
But the plan involves a lot more, much of which would be targeted to roll out sooner.
Bus rapid transit
Gwinnett’s plan also includes about 50 miles of “bus rapid transit,” which is often likened to “light rail on rubber tires.” The lines would generally operate in their own dedicated lanes and have far fewer stops than traditional bus service, making for significantly faster travel.
Plans call for BRT between Norcross and the Infinite Energy Center in Duluth; north down Pleasant Hill Road then west through Berkeley Lake and Peachtree Corners; and east near Ga. 316 and into downtown Lawrenceville. BRT could also go down U.S. 78 from Snellville into DeKalb County.
The plan also suggests building 110 miles of “rapid bus” corridors (which are different from BRT but meant to be faster than traditional bus service) to connect several key communities within Gwinnett.
That’s in addition to more than doubling traditional local bus service and adding six “flex service” areas where residents can summon rides on-demand.
Also proposed: four new express commuter bus routes and eight new park-and-rides, as well as a new “direct connect” service that would shuttle folks between park-and-ride lots and the Chamblee MARTA station throughout the day (not just during morning and afternoon rush hours).
The Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners and MARTA’s Board of Directors have both approved the contract that would be ratified should a majority of voters choose “yes” on Tuesday.
The agreement would give Gwinnett three members on the MARTA board — and far more financial control than any of the transit agency’s other member jurisdictions.
Under the contract, sales tax collected in Gwinnett would be handed over to the county, which would then write checks to MARTA for projects and other obligations.
The contract stipulates that, for the first six years, Gwinnett would pay MARTA 29 percent of its revenues. That would cover the cost of MARTA taking over Gwinnett’s existing bus system, which is currently a $13 million expense covered by property taxes. It would also cover what has been deemed the county’s “fair share” of operating, maintenance and “state of good repair” costs for the entire MARTA system.
The percentage would be renegotiated after the initial six-year period.
The contract also mandates that Gwinnett’s Board of Commissioners vote on capital projects and expenditures before they move forward. The commission would also have a vote before MARTA could issue any debt on its behalf.
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