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Gwinnett commissioners may not place transit issue on November ballot

The exterior of a Gwinnett County Transit bus is displayed at a Gwinnett County Transit bus center near Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) AJC FILE PHOTO
The exterior of a Gwinnett County Transit bus is displayed at a Gwinnett County Transit bus center near Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) AJC FILE PHOTO

Gwinnett County commissioners, unable to find a compromise on whether heavy rail should be part of the county's transit proposal to voters, may instead choose to not put any plan on the November ballot.

Over more than three hours Tuesday, four of Gwinnett's five commissioners debated the merits of a proposal that would extend MARTA's heavy rail service to Jimmy Carter Boulevard against a plan that would offer more bus rapid transit connections countywide.

A fifth commissioner, Tommy Hunter, has not participated in the months of discussion about transit expansion and has said he won't support putting any transit plan on the ballot.

Underlying the debate is the March 2019 failure of a transit plan that would have extended MARTA into Gwinnett. Charlotte Nash, the Republican Gwinnett commission chairman, said that failure had "poisoned the well" for future votes, even though turnout in the special election was below 20%.

“It’s not just the folks who voted who heard negative things,” Nash said. “We’d be better off not to have even called a referendum.”

For that reason, Nash said she supports an option that wouldn’t have heavy rail at all — it would be easier to differentiate from the failed 2019 plan. Commissioner Marlene Fosque, a Democrat, agreed with her. Fosque said she thought a transit plan that didn’t have MARTA or heavy rail “may be winnable with a lot of residents when they go to the ballot box.”

“They don’t want MARTA,” she said. “That’s what they said by their no votes in March.”

But their colleagues disagreed. Republican Commissioner Jace Brooks said he didn't think he could vote for "an all-bus plan." The changes from the failed proposal to the current heavy-rail option are significant, he said, and could be explained to voters.

Commissioner Ben Ku, a Democrat, also said he wouldn't vote for a plan without heavy rail. He suggested the board use the new Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority tax to run the system, relegating MARTA to only operate the heavy rail portion so differences in the plans were evident.

“It’s something we should have done 30 years ago,” he said. “If it doesn’t include the heavy rail, it’s not going to pass, in my mind.”

Commissioners, finding themselves at a standstill, each said they would rather hold no vote at all than vote the other way. Still, they agreed to meet Thursday afternoon to try again to compromise.

If they don't put the measure on November's ballot, commissioners may not have an opportunity to put a transit tax on the ballot until 2022 — a move Brooks said "would be dumb" because another tax measure is also slated for that year.

Nash said she'd like a vote to happen this year. She planned to go home and mull her options.

“I’m stubborn,” she said, “but I hope I’m not stupid.”