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

It’s now 2019. That means Gwinnett voters will hit the polls this year to decide if the long-resistant suburban county will join MARTA and greatly expand its mass transit offerings.

The special referendum, in fact, will be held in March — just a few months ahead. 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. 

About three weeks of advance in-person voting, including weekends, will be held.

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Every day between Feb. 25 and March 15, including Saturdays and Sundays, early voting will be available at the county elections office at 455 Grayson Highway in Lawrenceville. Voting hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day.

In addition, seven satellite locations will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day between March 4 and 15.

Satellite locations can be found here.

The last day to register to vote in the referendum is Feb. 19.

The question: Voters will see the ballot question phrased this way when they visit the polls: “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 you can learn more: Aside from continuing reading this guide, Gwinnett residents can attend a series of educational open houses sponsored by the county. 

The first one is on Jan. 22. More information is available here and a full list is below.

Transit Referendum Open Houses by Tyler Estep on Scribd

The basics of the 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. 

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Unique MARTA contract could be key to success of Gwinnett referendum

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 more than $5 billion potential road map for new transit, for the first time, includes commuter rail service.

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.

Now-former MARTA Board of Directors Chairman Robbie Ashe (left) and Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash speak with members of the media in September after the MARTA board approved a contract to provide transit services in Georgia’s second largest county. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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.

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.

Gwinnett County's pendi... by on Scribd

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