On Thursday, MARTA’s Board of Directors approved a historic contract that would allow it to take over and expand transit services — including building a new heavy rail line — in Gwinnett County. Gwinnett’s county commission has approved the contract, too.
But there’s still a long way to go before the decision on MARTA’s future in Georgia’s second-largest county is finalized.
So what’s next? What does it all mean? And when could MARTA make an appearance in Gwinnett?
1. What’s next? While a contract between Gwinnett and MARTA has been approved by both interested parties, Gwinnett voters will have the final say during a referendum scheduled for March 19, 2019. Per legislation, the ballot question will be phrased as follows: “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 ___.”
By voting for or against the contract, Gwinnettians will also be voting for or against paying a new 1 percent sales tax to pay for transit expansion. The tax would be levied until 2057, likely garnering more than $5 billion along the way.
2. March? Why March? While Gwinnett voters will head to polls in November to weigh in on a number of local, state and federal races, county officials opted to schedule the transit referendum for a standalone election in March. Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash has called it a compromise to get as many colleagues to support the effort as possible.
Democrats and transit advocates, meanwhile, have criticized the move — raising questions about the cost and about how lower turnout during a standalone referendum could affect the vote’s success or failure.
3. How’d we get here? Gwinnett voters have twice rejected MARTA but have not had a vote since 1990. Since then, the county’s population has ballooned to north of 900,000.
The county started developing a comprehensive transit development plan in 2016. The results? Recommendations including a rail extension from the Doraville MARTA station to the Norcross area (and, perhaps, a longer extension all the way to the Gwinnett Place Mall area); several bus rapid transit lines; and a much more extensive local bus network.
Legislation adopted earlier this year by Georgia’s General Assembly cleared some transit funding hurdles and tweaked the MARTA Act to allow Gwinnett to (potentially) join the agency under more favorable conditions.
4. So it would mean more taxes, huh? Yes.
Gwinnett residents currently pay 6 percent sales tax on purchases. If the transit referendum passes, they would pay 7 percent. That amounts to an extra dollar paid in taxes on a $100 purchase.
Collection would start July 1.
5. If the referendum passes, when would MARTA be in Gwinnett? And in what form? Should Gwinnett voters opt in, MARTA would take over operations of Gwinnett’s existing bus system — which currently includes five local routes and six express routes to the Atlanta area — “as soon as practical.” A dramatic expansion of the bus system, which would include seven new routes and more than double “bus-hours of service,” would be first on tap.
New park-and-rides and “direct connect” service (all-day, bi-directional bus service connecting to existing MARTA rail) are also planned over the first five years or so.
Initial bus rapid transit lines (buses with fewer stops and dedicated lanes) are planned for the period between 2025 and 2029.
In terms of heavy rail: The proposed line between Doraville and a new hub in the Jimmy Carter Boulevard/I-85 area could be built within 15 to 20 years. A possible extension to the Gwinnett Place area is currently projected to be 30 years or more in the future.