Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum: a comprehensive voter’s guide

Early voting on proposed MARTA expansion into Gwinnett County has begun. Election Day is March 19.
Gwinnett County residents fill out paperwork before casting their ballot during early voting for the county’s MARTA referendum at the Board of Voter Registrations and Elections building in Lawrenceville on Feb. 25. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Gwinnett County residents fill out paperwork before casting their ballot during early voting for the county’s MARTA referendum at the Board of Voter Registrations and Elections building in Lawrenceville on Feb. 25. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Gwinnett voters can now hit the polls to decide if the long-resistant suburban county will join MARTA and greatly expand its mass transit offerings.

And there are a lot of moving parts for voters to consider.

With that in mind, find below a comprehensive list of key things Gwinnett voters should know about the referendum itself; the county’s pending contract with MARTA; and the plan that would guide future transit projects should the referendum pass.

The date: Election Day is March 19 but advance in-person voting is underway.

Every day through March 15, which included Saturdays and Sundays, early voting has been available at the county elections office at 455 Grayson Highway in Lawrenceville, as well as seven satellite locations throughout the county.

Voting hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day.

Early voting locations can be found in the map below.

The ballot question: Voters will see the ballot question phrased this way: "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 __"

What the question means: A "yes" vote would be a vote in support of ratifying Gwinnett's pending transit service contract with MARTA — and one in favor of enacting a new 1 percent sales tax to pay for transit projects and operations in the county. (Purchases in Gwinnett are currently subject to 6 percent sales tax.)

That new countywide sales tax would remain in effect until 2057 and garner billions of dollars.

How much would I be spending? A lot of factors are at play here. How much sales tax folks pay is typically a reflection of income and, of course, spending.

But economists estimate that the average Gwinnett citizen would spend an additional $112 per year.

Read more here. And find answers to more frequently asked financial questions here.

How can I learn more: You can continue reading this guide, for one.

Otherwise, Gwinnett officials have already spoken at dozens of open houses and community groups but there are two remaining.

The basics of the MARTA contract: Gwinnett's Board of Commissioners and MARTA's Board of Directors both approved earlier this year a contract allowing the latter to take over and expand  transit offerings in the county. But the contract — a full copy of which is embedded at the bottom of this article — would only go into effect if the referendum passes.

It would dedicate the billions of sales tax dollars collected over nearly four decades to fund transit projects. All of the funds would be remitted to Gwinnett, which would pay MARTA for projects and other obligations as needed.

Twenty-nine percent of the funds collected in the early years of the contract would go to fund expansion of Gwinnett’s bus system and to cover maintenance and operation of the overall MARTA system.

The unique, Gwinnett-friendly aspects to the contract: The pending contract would be a distinctive one among those between MARTA and its member counties.

In addition to the majority of the sales tax money being sent directly back to Gwinnett to be redistributed at the county’s discretion, the contract says tax money collected in Gwinnett must be used “for the benefit of Gwinnett.”

The contract also includes a clause preventing MARTA from borrowing money for Gwinnett projects without approval from the county commission. All “fixed asset capital projects” would have to be approved by the commission too.

The contract also provides for Gwinnett to have three members on MARTA’s Board of Directors.

The plan that will guide potential projects: Gwinnett adopted its comprehensive transit development plan — the creation of which involved significant public input — in July.

The contract between Gwinnett and MARTA identifies the plan as the primary source of projects.

The plan includes heavy rail: Yup. Under the plan, heavy rail would extend from the existing Doraville MARTA station (just inside I-285 in DeKalb County) to a new Gwinnett transit hub roughly four miles away near I-85 and Jimmy Carter.

Gwinnett has already purchased property targeted for the future transit station.

Longer term plans include the possibility of extending rail another seven miles or so to the Gwinnett Place area.

The plan includes a lot of non-rail stuff too: Heavy rail would cost as much as $250 million per mile, making it the plan's most expensive proposition — but the non-rail recommendations are wide-ranging.

They include more than doubling local bus service and Express routes (including six new park-and-rides), as well as adding multiple “flex service” areas where riders can summon rides on-demand.

Plans also call for a bus rapid transit (BRT) line between Norcross and the Infinite Energy Center near Duluth. BRT — which makes fewer stops and generally operates in dedicated lanes, making it much faster than local bus service — could also extend east near Ga. 316 and into downtown Lawrenceville.

A similar line could also stretch north down Pleasant Hill Road then west through Berkeley Lake and Peachtree Corners.

New bus routes down U.S. 78 from the Snellville area into DeKalb County could also eventually be converted into BRT.

Seriously, there's a lot of non-rail stuff: There's also the idea of creating an extensive corridor for rapid bus service, which is different from bus rapid transit in that it doesn't operate in dedicated lanes.

A possible loop would stretch from Snellville down Ga. 124 to Lawrenceville, then down Ga. 20 to Buford. It would cross I-85 and I-985 near the Mall of Georgia before swinging back around down the I-85 corridor through the Suwanee and Duluth areas.

One arm of the route would then swing back south through Lilburn and back to Snellville. The other could run down Ga. 141 through Peachtree Corners — and then north up Holcomb Bridge Road and into Fulton County and the Ga. 400 area.

There's still more non-rail stuff: Three "direct connect" routes, which would pick up commuters at multiple park-and-rides and drop them off at the potential rail station in Norcross, are proposed. The routes are similar to Express routes — but would run in both directions all day.

02/26/2019 — Doraville, Georgia — A sign indicating the MARTA and Gwinnett County transit referendum voting calendar is displayed at the Doraville MARTA Transit Station in Doraville, Tuesday, February 26, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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When all of it would actually happen: If the referendum passes on March 19, new sales tax collections would start April 1.

MARTA board member Robbie Ashe has said he’d want to get expanded bus service up and rolling as soon as practically possible, perhaps within a few weeks or months. The rest would take some time.

BRT would be expected to be running between Doraville and the future Norcross-area transit hub (a line that would ultimately be replaced with heavy rail) within five years. The same goes for more BRT between Norcross and Gwinnett Place and on up to the Infinite Energy Center.

Estimates have varied, but the first rail line could be completed in the first 15 to 20 years.

The goal is for everything included in the comprehensive transit plan to be completed within 30 years.

Who's for it? Who's against it? Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash has been cautious about how she advocates for the referendum, but she has helped lead the effort and is in favor. The Gwinnett Chamber has endorsed the measure as well.

Two pro-transit advocacy committees have also formed: "Go Gwinnett," which is made up primarily of local business leaders, and "Yes to MARTA," which is led by the Georgia Sierra Club. The New Georgia Project Action Fund is also leading canvassing and get out the vote efforts.

Seemingly, the only formal opposition group has been led by longtime local gadfly Joe Newton, though several parties have suggested they might launch such efforts.

Many Republican leaders have not made their stances on the issue public, though ex-Gov. Nathan Deal, Gwinnett Sheriff Butch Conway, Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter and Gwinnett County Public Schools superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks have all endorsed the effort.

State Rep. Brett Harrell has already voted no, and state Sen. Renee Unterman has expressed some reservations.

The role of "The ATL": Metro Atlanta's new regional transit agency — the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority, or ATL — is up and running. And while it's role is to oversee transit funding and planning across the region, its formation should have little impact on the agreement between Gwinnett and MARTA.

Per Gwinnett Commission Chair Charlotte Nash, who’s also a member of the ATL’s board:  “Since the contract between Gwinnett and MARTA was approved by the parties prior to Dec. 1, it is treated as a pre-existing contract under the provisions of [the new legislation that allowed Gwinnett to join MARTA]. This means that the ATL Board does not have to approve the contract or the transit plan on which it is based.”

Nash did say, however, that she expects the ATL to incorporate Gwinnett’s transit plan into its overall regional plan.