New bill could complicate Gwinnett’s quest for transit vote this fall

Charlotte Nash, chairman of the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners and member of House Commission on Transit Governance and Funding, speaks to the bill introduced Tuesday. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
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Charlotte Nash, chairman of the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners and member of House Commission on Transit Governance and Funding, speaks to the bill introduced Tuesday. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

There are lots of things that Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash likes about thee new transit bill unveiled Tuesday at the Georgia Capitol.

But House Bill 930 also raises plenty of questions — including one about Gwinnett's ability to hold a long proposed countywide referendum on transit expansion later this year as envisioned.

“I think there will have to be some special provisions made for that,” said Nash, a member of the House Commission on Transit Governance and Funding, whose efforts helped guide the bill’s creation. “But right now it’s more important to get the bill passed.”

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5 things to know about Metro Atlanta transit expansion 1. Georgia lawmakers are discussing ways to boost public transit funding as Atlanta competes for Amazon's HQ2. 2. In Clayton County, MARTA has expanded bus service and is negotiating for right-of-way with an eye to adding rail. 3. By the end of 2018, there will be more than 50 new miles of express toll lanes in metro Atlanta. 4. The Cobb/Cherokee Northwest Corridor project will feature 30 miles of reversible lanes, with 39 new bridges. 5. Georgia spe

The legislation — introduced by House Speaker David Ralston, Rep. Kevin Tanner and other members of the special commission — would allow counties like Nash’s to levy a 1-cent, transit-funding sales tax for up to 30 years, a crucial step in maintaining a steady funding stream and in obtaining federal money to help out.

Read more about the overall bill here.

The bill would create a new board — dubbed Atlanta-region Transit Link, or “ATL” — to oversee transit planning in the 13-county metro Atlanta area. The transit-related sales taxes raised in any county would only be spent in that community, but the board would have to sign off on local project lists.

“This is not about forcing counties to take MARTA,” Tanner, a Republican from Dawsonville, said.

As written, though, many of the tenets of the bill, including the assembly of the regional "ATL" board, would not take effect until January. Nash has long said that she wants her county to vote on some kind of transit expansion this fall, and it's unclear if such a referendum could be held before the bill, if adopted, became effective.

Under the current version of the proposed legislation, any local referendums would have to include a specific list of projects approved by the ATL board — a body that wouldn’t be officially formed until nearly two months after Gwinnett’s proposed vote in November.

If Gwinnett’s referendum were not held this fall (during a gubernatorial election), it would likely be postponed another two years until the 2020 presidential election to ensure maximum turnout, officials have said.

That would be a long time to wait with the iron perhaps hotter than it’s ever been.

Gwinnett last voted down joining MARTA in 1990 and Gwinnett County Transit currently consists only of six local bus routes and five express routes to locations inside I-285. But the county’s demographics and its attitudes toward transit have changed dramatically in recent years, and momentum for expanding services in some fashion has revved up.

The county's comprehensive transit planning study is expected to be completed in coming months and will guide decisions on what form any transit expansion might take. Everything from more bus routes to bus rapid transit and rail are being examined, and early surveys conducted as part of the study suggested Gwinnettians may indeed be willing to pay a sales tax to fund transit expansion.

“It’s very important, I believe, to do something about transit now,” Nash said Tuesday, speaking about both Gwinnett and the whole Atlanta region. “I believe that we have a window of opportunity that, if we don’t take advantage of it now, perhaps that window is not going to be open again for some time.”

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