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

As new year approaches, Gwinnett, MARTA prepare for major transit vote

There are still nearly three months until Gwinnett holds its historic referendum on joining MARTA — a vote that could both radically alter the county’s future and help trigger other transit dominoes in metro Atlanta’s suburbs.

And while the referendum won’t be held until March 19, plenty of work is already being done behind the scenes. Much of that work will come to forefront soon, as things ramp up post-general election and post-holiday season.

Below, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution takes a closer look at efforts to educate the public and to advocate for the referendum’s passage, as well as plans being devised to operate MARTA in Gwinnett if voters approve the measure.

Public outreach

As governmental entities, both Gwinnett County and MARTA are in sensitive positions.

By law, they can’t use tax dollars to advocate for or against a referendum question — so, officially, they’re left with “education” efforts at their disposal.

For Gwinnett, such efforts will get revved in the new year, Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said. But exactly what form they will take is still being determined. If the county’s actions during the development of its comprehensive transit plan (which outlines everything that could be built if the referendum is approved) are any indication, efforts would likely include informational meetings, displays at community events and online information.

The information will undoubtedly focus on explaining both the county’s transit plan and its pending contract with MARTA. The latter may be especially crucial for longtime residents of the county that have been wary to trust outside groups with Gwinnett tax dollars. An affirmative referendum would lock Gwinnettians into paying a new 1 percent sales tax until 2057.

Under the contract, the extra penny on purchases in Gwinnett will be collected by the state and then flow back to the the county, which will write checks to the transit agency. This, in theory, gives Gwinnett officials more control and accountability over how MARTA spends money collected in the county. Typically, the state sends tax dollars in other MARTA counties directly to the transit agency.

Initially most of the Gwinnett transit tax dollars collected will be put away for future projects, including extending a rail line to the county. But about a third of the early collections would go to ramp up bus operations and for general maintenance and operation of the transit system.

“We’ve got good answers for a lot of the concerns,” Nash said. “The trick is how do we get that out in the best way.”

MARTA board chairman Robbie Ashe said education efforts by the transit authority would be complementary to Gwinnett’s efforts.

“We are going to work hand-in-glove with Charlotte, to make sure that we are reaching out to the correct communities in the correct ways,” Ashe said.

A map showing the high-capacity options including in Gwinnett’s comprehensive transit plan.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Advocacy efforts

None of that is to say there won’t be a formal committee to advocate for the MARTA referendum’s success (or failure, for that matter).

A pro-MARTA committee called “Go Gwinnett” registered with the state earlier this month. Its spokeswoman, Paige Havens, said it is comprised of various community leaders who felt the need to step up.

The group is still formulating its plans, but expects to get revved up in early January. It will hold regular public meetings and townhalls, canvass at various places throughout the county and create a website, among other efforts, Havens said.

“I think that the biggest issue is helping people understand what this vote is about, and it’s not what previous referendums were about,” Havens said. “There’s a lot more local control in this.”

One less official pro-MARTA advocacy group, led primarily by members of the Georgia Sierra Club has also formed. It created a website called

“If you’re not gonna ride the train, the person in the car in front of you may be riding the train,” said Duluth resident Art Sheldon, the local Sierra Club’s conservation chair and a longtime transit advocate. “Get some people off the roads and make it easier for others.”

Gabe Okoye, the outgoing chairman of Gwinnett’s Democratic Party, said the local party would “at a minimum collaborate with other pro-referendum groups to push it through.”

New Gwinnett Republican Party chairman Michael Duckett said the local GOP wasn’t “taking a side” on the issue.

There’s also the possibility of outside opposition groups making an appearance.

A group like Americans for Prosperity, for example, has been credited with helping kill several transit votes in other cities across the country. The advocacy group is tied to conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch.

Nash said that, thus far, there’s been no whiff of organized opposition.

Planning for MARTA

In the meantime, both Gwinnett and MARTA are making preparations to be ready if the referendum passes.

If the plan is adopted, collection of the new sales tax would start April 1 — and MARTA would take over (and start expanding) Gwinnett’s existing bus system as quickly as possible.

MARTA and Gwinnett are already working on a transition plan and the agency could assume management of county bus operations within weeks after new tax collections start.

“We’ve got a contract with an operator right now,” Gwinnett Department of Transportation director Alan Chapman said. “We would have to work out with MARTA how to transition that to their model of providing service.”

Ashe, the MARTA board member, said MARTA has to “do the work at the staff level to make sure that, if Gwinnett voters trust us with their dollars, that very quickly we are stepping up and improving transit service across the county.”

Other pre-referendum preparations, Gwinnett officials said, include identifying and “protecting” corridors that would be key to future transit expansion.

But perhaps the most sizable preparation is already near completion. The county was aiming to close this month on the purchase of 103 acres of property near Jimmy Carter Boulevard and I-85 in the Norcross area. Officials have pinpointed the location as the likely destination for a bus and rail transit hub that they hope will be part of an “urban-style mixed-use development” with commercial and residential components.

That hub would be the home to Gwinnett’s first-ever MARTA rail station, with trains running there from the existing Doraville station.

8/2/18 - Lawrenceville - Commuters board Gwinnett County Transit express buses departing for downtown Atlanta at the Express Bus Park and Ride lot at Sugarloaf Mills in Lawrenceville. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


When: Gwinnett voters in March will cast ballots on whether or not to have MARTA operate transit service in the county. Early voting is expected to be held for about a week prior to the March 19 referendum.

The question: The wording of the ballot question does specifically mention MARTA. It will read, “Gwinnett County has executed a contract for the provision of transit services, dated as of August 2, 2018. Shall this contract be approved?”

What it means: An affirmative vote would ratify Gwinnett’s contract with MARTA and enact a new 1 percent sales tax for transit in the county until 2057.

The contract: The pending contract between Gwinnett and MARTA would dedicate billions of new sales tax dollars over nearly four decades to fund transit projects. About a third of the funds collected in the early years of the contract would go to fund expansion of a MARTA bus system in Gwinnett and to cover maintenance and operation of the overall MARTA system.

The rest would be remitted to Gwinnett, which would pay MARTA for other projects as needed.

The projects: Projects are expected to track the county’s new transit plan, which includes recommendations to build a heavy rail connection from the existing Doraville MARTA station to a new “multimodal hub” near Jimmy Carter Boulevard and I-85. Longer-term plans suggested possibly extending rail all the way to Gwinnett Place Mall.

Other recommendation include a major expansion of local bus service; several bus rapid transit (BRT) lines, which make fewer stops than local service and generally operate in dedicated lanes; several new park-and-ride lots and express bus routes are also suggested.

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