Gwinnett timeline for deciding on transit referendum is shrinking

Gwinnett County Transit bus. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) AJC FILE PHOTO

Is it more important that a Gwinnett County transit system be regionally focused or affordable?

Should it cater to people who depend on public transportation for jobs, or riders of choice?

Does the mode of public transportation make a difference?

Gwinnett County commissioners, weighing whether to again ask voters to expand transportation options in the region, are still debating these questions and others as they inch closer to deadlines for getting a referendum on the November ballot.

Attorneys for the county said a final decision must be made by the end of July. But in reality, the deadline is much earlier.

That's because Gwinnett leaders must have agreements with other entities — like MARTA or the ATL board — before calling a vote. The county's election board has to approve ballot language and Gwinnett officials might have to meet with cities to reach consensus on the referendum.

County attorney Mike Ludwiczak said those steps likely have to be completed by the end of May.

That means there's little time to waste. But county commissioners are still asking basic questions about priorities 11 months after the last vote to bring MARTA to the county was defeated.

“I’m looking for a balanced approach,” Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said during a Tuesday brainstorming session. “We’re never going to be able to afford (funding) all the priorities to everybody’s satisfaction.”

Nash said she thinks commissioners only have until the end of March to decide how they're moving forward. If commissioners elect not to hold a vote this year, County Commissioner Ben Ku speculated it could be 2024 before one is held — because elections to extend taxes that fund capital projects for the county and the school system are already expected in 2022, and holding the transit vote in a special election in an off-year already failed once.

Commissioner Jace Brooks said it is unlikely voters would approve three tax initiatives in the same year.

“Something’s going to go down,” Brooks said.

This week, commissioners will look at the transit plan recommendations a review committee made in January as they continue to debate the best way to move forward. They want to create a system that's safe, affordable, attractive and functional, but they don't want spending on transit to limit the county's ability to address other needs.

In part, the available dollars will dictate what comes next. But Commissioner Marlene Fosque said she wants to be cognizant of all the spending implications for years to come.

“You know how people say house-poor? I don’t want to be transit-poor,” Fosque said. “We have other things to do in the county.”

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