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At state of county, Gwinnett chair touts MARTA as next big decision

Charlotte Nash gives the state of the county address at the Infinite Energy Forum in Duluth on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. Nash addressed the MARTA referendum, which would bring MARTA services to Gwinnett. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
Charlotte Nash gives the state of the county address at the Infinite Energy Forum in Duluth on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. Nash addressed the MARTA referendum, which would bring MARTA services to Gwinnett. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

Again and again in recent weeks, at open houses and community meetings and town hall gatherings, Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash has preached the gospel of MARTA in Gwinnett.

She's touted the county's pending contract with MARTA and the plan that would guide transit expansion if Gwinnett's historic March 19 referendum passes.

And on Wednesday, five days before early voting begins in that referendum, Nash did it again — this time as part of her annual state of the county address, over a fancy lunch in a fancy ballroom in front of hundreds of county leaders.

“Let me be clear,” Nash said. “I do not claim that our transit plan and contract are perfect. However, I believe that both are very good and we cannot afford to delay while we search for perfection.”

ExploreIN-DEPTH: A comprehensive voter’s guide to Gwinnett’s 2019 MARTA referendum

The decision that voters will face about joining MARTA is Gwinnett's next big one, the Republican leader said, a fateful choice that's akin to visionary decisions of yesteryear to create the sprawling water and sewer systems that enabled the county's exponential growth.

Roads alone, Nash said, are not enough. And they will not be enough as that growth continues, as the county of nearly 1 million people welcomes another 500,000 or so in the coming decades.

Transit, she said, will give Gwinnett “the final competitive edge it needs.” She got a standing ovation.

“We know changes are coming, but we do not have the luxury to sit still now to wait for those changes to occur,” Nash said. “We have to get moving in order for Gwinnett to be able to keep moving in the future.”

Nash touched on other county issues during her 22-minute speech, but transit was the focus.

A map held by someone in the audience at the Infinite Energy Forum in Duluth on Wednesday, February 20, 2019 shows what MARTA would look like if the MARTA referendum passes. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
A map held by someone in the audience at the Infinite Energy Forum in Duluth on Wednesday, February 20, 2019 shows what MARTA would look like if the MARTA referendum passes. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

If Gwinnett's March 19 referendum passes, Gwinnett's pending contract with MARTA would be ratified. Residents and visitors to the county would pay an additional 1 percent sales tax, effective April 1.

That tax would help pay for a dramatic transit expansion, including a roughly four-mile rail extension from MARTA's Doraville station to a new multimodal hub near Norcross. The $5.5 billion plan also includes around 50 miles of bus rapid transit lines (which operate in dedicated lanes and are often likened to "light rail on rubber tires"); other "rapid bus" connections in the county; a number of new park-and-rides and express routes; and a much larger traditional local bus network.

Nash's speech largely laid out all of those things, while also touting the amount of financial control the MARTA contract gives Gwinnett and the flexibility it allows as time and technology progress.

Both have been questions raised by detractors.

“Gwinnett has always been a leader in this region and in this state,” said Michael Paris, the president and CEO of the Council for Quality Growth, one of the sponsors of Nash’s speech. “If we miss this opportunity, it won’t come around soon.”

No formal opposition has emerged to the referendum, and the county has seen dramatic changes along demographic and political lines in recent years, let alone since the last time it voted on joining MARTA in 1990. But the special election is likely to be decided by a slim margin.

Chuck Warbington, Lawrenceville’s city manager and a longtime transit advocate, praised Nash’s speech and the comparison to decisions years ago about water and sewer.

“That is what we have on the table,” Warbington said. “And I think she made that very, very clear.”

Former Republican state Rep. Buzz Brockway — who again shot down talk about a possible run for Georgia’s 7th Congressional District — was also at the speech. The Lawrenceville resident said he still wasn’t sure how he was voting on the MARTA referendum but had high praise for Nash.

”You just get around her and you feel confidence because of her competence,” Brockway said. “I think that she’s negotiated a very good deal, and I know there’s a lot of opinions on it. But I think she’s negotiated about as good of a deal as Gwinnett would get on it.”

GWINNETT’S 2019 MARTA REFERENDUM

The ballot 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 it means: A yes vote would be a vote in support of ratifying Gwinnett’s pending transit service contract with MARTA, allowing it to take over Gwinnett’s current transit services and greatly expand them — including a possible rail extension into the Norcross area and an extensive bus system with diverse options.

A yes vote would also trigger a new 1 percent sales tax to pay for such projects. Purchases in Gwinnett are currently subject to 6 percent sales tax. The new countywide sales tax would remain in effect until 2057 and garner billions of dollars. Collected funds would be remitted to Gwinnett County, which would then write checks to MARTA for projects and operations.

Key dates: Election Day is March 19.

Advance in-person voting will be held at the Gwinnett elections office (455 Grayson Highway in Lawrenceville) every day between Feb. 25 and March 15, including weekends.

Between March 4 and 15, advance in-person voting will also be held at several satellite locations. Those can be found at gwinnettcounty.com.

Hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

AJC’s COMPLETE COVERAGE

Gwinnett voters will go the polls on March 19 in a historic special election that could change the face of metro Atlanta’s suburbs.

Residents there will decide if Georgia’s second most populous county will join the MARTA system and chip in a new 1 percent sales tax to pay for billions of dollars in transit improvements. A successful referendum in Gwinnett may ignite action for more mass transit in other metro Atlanta counties that have long been resistant to the idea.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will provide comprehensive coverage leading up to the vote and on Election Day. Our reporters will help readers understand the issues, the key players, what’s at stake, and provide information for voters to make an informed decision at the ballot box.