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With MARTA-Gwinnett contract approved, public vote is all that’s left

Gwinnett County has now cleared two big hurdles on its once-unthinkable trek toward joining MARTA.

It’s got one more to go.

A contract to take over and greatly expand transit services in Gwinnett, Georgia’s second largest county, was approved Thursday by MARTA’s Board of Directors. The agreement, which has already been approved by Gwinnett’s leadership, would pave the way for billions of dollars to be collected and spent on extending transit into the increasingly dense and diverse community.

Thursday’s action, though, doesn’t seal the deal. The contract would become effective only with the support of Gwinnett voters. A referendum is scheduled for March.

“I will just say again how excited I am … at the opportunity to help transform the region, the lives of the million-plus people who will be living in Gwinnett County over the next several decades, the opportunity to work together to come one step closer to fulfilling the dream of a truly regional system,” MARTA board chairman Robbie Ashe said just before Thursday afternoon’s vote.

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IN-DEPTH: Unique contract could be key to success of Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum

IN-DEPTH: For Gwinnett transit advocates, a mix of confidence and concern

The county’s transit development plan recommends building a rail line from the existing Doraville MARTA station to a new hub in the Norcross area and, perhaps, later extending it all the way to the Gwinnett Place Mall area. It also recommends bus rapid transit and greatly expanded local bus service.

The contract between MARTA and Gwinnett would allocate 29 percent of the penny sales tax collected in the county over the first six years toward two things. Much of it would go toward the cost of taking over and expanding Gwinnett’s existing bus system, Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said. The rest would be spent on the maintenance and operations of the larger MARTA system.

The agreement contains a number of provisions that Gwinnett officials touted as giving them unprecedented control over how the tax money collected in the county is spent.

For one, it calls for returning transit tax money collected by the state directly to Gwinnett County, which can then make payments to MARTA as needed. The contract also says money collected in Gwinnett must be used “for the benefit of Gwinnett” and includes a clause preventing MARTA from borrowing money for Gwinnett projects without approval from the county commission.

Capital projects will have to be approved by the county too.

Nash said she was “very pleased” with the contract’s approval.

“I am excited about what expanded transit services in Gwinnett will do for both Gwinnett and the entire region,” she said. “I very much appreciate the spirit and diligence that Chairman Ashe and MARTA staff brought to the negotiation process that led to today’s vote.”

Not everyone’s quite so happy.

Members of the DeKalb County government, in fact, think the terms of Gwinnett’s contract represent “a significant departure from the structure and allocation of costs and authority that have defined MARTA from its inception in 1972.” Commission Chairman Michael Thurmond and Commissioner Jeff Rader said as much in a letter delivered to the MARTA board late Wednesday.

The letter was then read aloud during MARTA’s Thursday meeting by Fred Daniels, one of DeKalb’s representatives on the MARTA board.

Rader told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that DeKalb doesn’t begrudge Gwinnett for negotiating a good contract. But the letter asked for MARTA to “correct long-standing deficiencies within the existing service area,” and to “renew its commitment to its original members with the same specificity and deference as the proposed contract offers to its newest prospective member.”

The letter echoed the thoughts of several DeKalb residents who spoke during the MARTA board’s public comment period. Most did not reference Gwinnett specifically but admonished the MARTA board for its perceived lack of commitment to DeKalb.

IN-DEPTH: MARTA tries to fix capital program ahead of Atlanta expansion

Expanding transit in Gwinnett is, of course, contingent upon county voters approving a referendum, which is the only item on a March 19 ballot. Recent polls and surveys have shown a majority of Gwinnettians would support more transit (and support paying for it with a sales tax), though advocates have raised concerns about the effect a standalone election could have on minimizing turnout.

Gwinnett voters have rejected joining MARTA twice before. The most recent referendum was in 1990,when about 90 percent of Gwinnett’s 350,000 residents were white.

The county now has a population north of 900,000 and its long-held Republican leanings are also starting to shift. The county voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016’s presidential election.

“We have a generational opportunity to get this right,” Ashe said.

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