Gwinnett commissioners can’t find clear path forward on transit vote

The path forward for transit expansion in Gwinnett County is still unclear.

Two days after county commissioners were at an impasse about what might be on a transit referendum in November, a proposed compromise also fell short.

Four of the five commissioners are split as to whether a MARTA extension to Jimmy Carter Boulevard should be part of the proposal sent to voters. A fifth commissioner, Republican Tommy Hunter, has largely stayed out of the discussion. Though he called in to a meeting Thursday, he didn't offer his opinion on any plan and has said in the past that he doesn't support putting a transit referendum on the ballot.

Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash, who wants a version of the plan that doesn't include heavy rail, said in a Thursday email that her proposed compromise was meant to bridge the gap between commissioners. While the elected officials have been discussing using a full penny sales tax to pay for transit expansion, Nash suggested they eliminate the heavy rail portion and only tax residents three-quarters of a penny — leaving room for another group of commissioners to pay for the MARTA portion of the plan with the remaining quarter penny and another vote.

But two commissioners who wanted heavy rail to be part of the original plan stood their ground.

“I had hoped to be able to find a way for at least three members of the Board to agree on an approach today, and the proposed compromise was an attempt to find a path forward,” Nash said. “I do not have an answer today about what might allow that to happen but I have not given up.”

Commissioners Jace Brooks and Ben Ku said they didn't think it was worth sacrificing a single-seat ride to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and the economic development opportunities that would come with that, for a small increase in area served. Additionally, the compromise plan would have meant construction delays and service reductions for bus services in the original proposal to keep the costs within reason.

Ku, a Democrat, said public input since a failed March 2019 transit referendum shows that the county wants heavy rail. Brooks, a Republican, said he remained convinced that the best option for voters was a full-penny tax with a MARTA extension.

“I remain convinced that a full penny with heavy rail is the best option,” Brooks said. “It’s received the most input, the most vetting, the most support from the public.”

Brooks suggested that commissioners vote on a version of the plan that has heavy rail at a meeting before the end of the month. If commissioners want to put a transit referendum on the ballot, they must vote to do so before the end of July.

Nash, a Republican, said she was concerned that the current economic environment would discourage people from voting for a new tax. She worried that if heavy rail was part of the proposal, required ballot language about bonds would be confusing to voters.

“It’s not the best timing and circumstances to put a referendum that includes big dollar figures on the ballot,” she said.

Commissioner Marlene Fosque, a Democrat, said heavy rail would happen "eventually." But she said she thought a vote without rail would allow more areas of the county to have service. She suggested the county could begin planning work needed for a MARTA expansion so voters could see leaders were taking it seriously.

Ku rejected the idea as a poor use of taxpayer money, since no heavy rail expansion would be guaranteed.

“I don’t think we’re saying we’re never going to have rail,” Fosque said. “I’m not against heavy rail. I just want more choices and options.”