MARTA Board delays action on Gwinnett transit contract

Gwinnett leaders delayed a vote on a referendum until next year

The MARTA Board of Directors on Thursday postponed action on a deal that could allow the agency to expand into Gwinnett County, for decades a hotbed of resistance to transit.

The contract would allow MARTA to assume control of Gwinnett's existing bus service, to extend rail service along I-85 and to operate transit in the county through 2057. It's a deal that would have been inconceivable even a few years ago, and underscores how dramatically attitudes toward transit have changed in Georgia's second-largest county.

MARTA Board members praised the deal but wanted more time to review it. Nonetheless, Chairman Robbie Ashe hailed the measure as an historic achievement that could benefit all of metro Atlanta.

“The idea that someone will be able to travel from Jonesboro to Lawrenceville without using a car, how transformative is that for our region?” Ashe said.

Gabe Okoye, chairman of the Gwinnett County Democratic Party, walks away from the podium after telling the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners that the election to determine the approval of a new contract with MARTA should be held in the upcoming November election instead of being delayed until 2019 on Wednesday, August 1 at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center auditorium. JENNA EASON / JENNA.EASON@COXINC.COM

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The delay follows Tuesday's surprise move by the Gwinnett County Commission to hold a MARTA referendum in March instead of November, when voter turnout likely would be higher. Democrats charged the delay was designed to protect Republicans up and down the ballot from the higher Democratic turnout that a transit referendum might generate.

“It is politics,” Gwinnett Democratic Party president Gabe Okoye said. “They are still not serious about the public transportation system in this county.”

Gwinnett officials denied such political considerations played a role. In a press release issued Thursday, Commissioner John Heard — who is up for re-election in November — said scheduling the vote for March removed “the MARTA question from the clutter of what I expect will be a rancorous and potentially divisive general election campaign(s) and placed it on a stand-alone ballot, free from partisan divisions and issues.”

Gwinnett voters would need to approve the MARTA contract and a 1-cent sales tax for transit expansion. With an electorate that could be smaller, older and whiter, a March election could prove more challenging for a transit referendum, some political observers believe.

Gwinnett’s Board of Commissioners Chair Charlotte Nash, left, announces the approval of a new contract with MARTA on Wednesday, August 1 at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center auditorium. JENNA EASON / JENNA.EASON@COXINC.COM

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A failed referendum would be a major setback for transit in Gwinnett and could slow recent momentum for transit expansion across metro Atlanta.

Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash dismissed concerns about the viability of the referendum Thursday.

“I think this is going to pass any time it’s on the ballot,” she said, citing growing demand for transit in the county.

“It’s incumbent on all of us to make sure that it passes,” Ashe said. “It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity. We will work very hard to make sure that it happens.”

Mark Toro, managing director of North American Properties and developer of the future Revel mini-city at Gwinnett’s Infinite Energy Center, said he’s not overly concerned about the March referendum.

Toro said the metro Atlanta business community will rally around the March vote, and the argument will center around jobs and opportunity.

“It is not going to fail,” he said. “I am not going to even consider it.”

Gwinnett County voters must approve plans to extend MARTA rail service from Doraville to Jimmy Carter Boulevard.

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The proposed MARTA contract contains provisions designed to assure skeptical Gwinnett residents that their money will be well-spent.

MARTA would take over and expand Gwinnett County’s existing bus service. Eventually, the agency would extend rail service from Doraville up I-85 to Jimmy Carter Boulevard, and perhaps to the Gwinnett Place Mall area.

For six years, Gwinnett would pay the agency 29 percent of the sales tax proceeds to operate the county’s transit service and for general maintenance of the entire MARTA system. After that, Gwinnett would pay an amount to be negotiated.

The rest of the sales tax proceeds would be set aside for future transit improvements in Gwinnett.

During a work session Thursday, Ashe assured board members the contract protects the interests of Gwinnett County as well as those areas that already pay for MARTA service.

“Gwinnett will be part of the MARTA family, although there is some significant separation of the way our funds and their funds will be accounted for and spent,” he said.

Board members welcomed the contract and pledged to review it in time for a likely board vote in September.

“I’m tickled pink,” board member Roderick Edmond told Nash, who attended the meeting. “I can speak on the part of Atlanta. We are ready to embrace you all with open arms.”

Staff writer Scott Trubey contributed to this report