Gwinnett commissioners approve MARTA contract, call for referendum

A MARTA sign is seen at a station off Piedmont Road in Atlanta. (Photo: FOX 5 Atlanta)

Gwinnett County residents will decide in March whether MARTA rolls up into the county starting next year.

County commissioners approved a contract with the transit agency, as well as a call for a referendum on joining MARTA, during a special called meeting Wednesday morning. If the referendum passes, Gwinnett will have a one cent sales tax in place until at least 2057 to have MARTA service.

The contract was approved by a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Tommy Hunter voting against it. The call for a March 19 referendum was approved unanimously.

“I believe this is a good contract for Gwinnett,” Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said. “I think it positions us to move forward on the … expansion, robust expansion of our transit opportunities in Gwinnett. I’m pleased with the level of cooperation that came to the negotiating table from MARTA, and I’d encourage everybody to take a look at the contract.”

The contract — which Nash called a “prenuptial agreement” — will now go to the MARTA’s Board of Directors for approval when it meets Thursday.

The 39-year length of the contract is designed so it will be up for renewal at the same time contracts with other counties are also up for renewal, according to Nash. If the referendum passes, collections on the MARTA sales tax would begin July 1, 2019.

Nash said that because of provisions included in the regional transit bill, House Bill 930, that legislators approved earlier this year, Gwinnett will have a “structured membership” in MARTA. One of those provisions is that Gwinnett will get three seats on MARTA’s board.

“This needs to be viewed as a broad contract that sets up the framework and there’s going to be additional agreements that will be negotiated over time, assuming voter approval,” Nash said. “Some of the work might be done in advance of a referendum, but really to move forward with it, voter approval is necessary.”

If voters approve the county joining the MARTA system, it will be the second time in this decade that voters in a metro Atlanta county have agreed to join the transit agency. Clayton County voters approved their county joining the system in 2014.

But voter approval of the referendum will also mark a major shift for Gwinnett. The long-running Gwinnett County Transit service will be absorbed into MARTA as a result. That means Gwinnett, which already has GRTA XPress service as well, will move away from a single-county transit set up and more toward a regional system set up.

“We’ve got a huge pent up demand for transit options,” Nash said. “I mean if we had any doubt of that, or any question of that, I think we satisfied ourselves with the process that we went through for the public outreach and surveying (for the transit plan).

“So there’s a huge pent up demand for that (and) we see this as a way to begin to satisfy that demand, and do it in a way that makes sense from a regional perspective.”

Existing plans would shape how MARTA operates in Gwinnett

The recently completed Connect Gwinnett Transit Plan as a framework for building out MARTA. That plan includes a large number of projects, including expended local and express bus and paratransit serve and the addition of bus rapid transit and rapid bus, or arterial rapid transit.

A key part of the transit plan, however, is the proposed expansion of heavy rail from the Doraville MARTA station to at least Jimmy Carter Boulevard or possibly Gwinnett Place Mall.

Gwinnett leaders must approve any fixed asset capital projects in the county, such as a transit center, before MARTA undertakes them. The county is also allowed to retain professional design review and engineering services for major capital projects. Those services can be paid for out of Gwinnett’s MARTA sales tax proceeds.

Gwinnett would also pay if it wants something beyond what is seen elsewhere in the MARTA system, such as nicer looking bus stops, extended service hours or more buses.

“We agree that we’re going to jointly establish standards of service Gwinnett with a base level matching that of the existing members,” Nash said. “This will be a separate agreement, and then the agreement is that we can purchase a level of services and facilities beyond that base level at our own expense.”

Another provision of the contract calls for Gwinnett to use its eminent domain authority to condemn properties for transit projects since MARTA does not have that authority. The county is also agreeing to protect identified future transit corridors so they can be used for service later on.

An advisory committee will be put together as well to review the high-capacity transit program, including projects such heavy rail or BRT, and make recommendations to Gwinnett commissioners as well as the county’s representatives on the MARTA board.

“For planning and implementation of projects, we’ll jointly plan and implement the projects and our transit development plan serves as a source of projects,” Nash said.

Gwinnett wants some control over how local funds are used

Funds collected for a MARTA sales tax will be labeled as county revenues which Gwinnett officials will then pay to the transit agency on a monthly basis.

For the first six years of the Gwinnett’s membership in MARTA, it would be paying 29 percent of the revenues collected from the sales tax to the transit system. That will be done to cover the county’s share of the operations and maintenance and repair costs for MARTA’s system.

“There will be a provision, to protect both parties, that we’ll do a true-up at the end of (the six-year period),” Nash said. “Actually, a true-up will be done annually of actual costs versus (what was paid throughout the year). I mean we’re all working with projections right now.”

Nash said county and MARTA officials believe the expansion of local bus service should at least be “pretty much on the first big plateau” by the end of the first six years.

Meanwhile, Gwinnett will hold onto any funds that are being set aside for any future capital projects that the transit agency will undertake in the county.

“That’s a difference between this arrangement and Clayton’s,” Nash said.

The commission chairwoman said it was important to her for Gwinnett to retain control over the money raised in the county for the transit system.

If debt is issued to pay for transit projects in Gwinnett, the county would have to approve it and money to pay off the debt would come from Gwinnett’s MARTA sales tax proceeds.

“(Debt would be for) the big ticket items, whether it’s fixed assets for rail or BRT,” Nash said. “If we can move the design and environmental permitting process quickly enough, we may want to issue debt to be able to deliver the projects.”

Nash said she feels Gwinnett will be “paying our share” but also said protections were put in place on how money raised in the county through a MARTA sales tax would be spent.

Nash said money raised in Gwinnett for MARTA service has to be used for the benefit of Gwinnett residents. That could, for example, mean money raised in Gwinnett could be used for the maintenance of the rail between the Doraville station and the DeKalb-Gwinnett county line.

“Sometimes it gets misquoted in terms that it has to be used in Gwinnett (but) linkages to the system are pretty important to us,” Nash said. “We’ve also got a provision that if a project is outside of Gwinnett but serves our need — in many cases that’s going to serve the needs of the other jurisdictions too — we have agreed that we will figure out a way to split up the money proportional to the benefit.”

Public safety cooperation will be addressed separately

One issue that will be sorted out later is how public safety agencies cooperate in addressing issues that arise.

Nash said there are some basics, however, such as MARTA’s police are limited to handling issues that arise on MARTA property while local law enforcement would have jurisdiction outside of those properties.

There are several variables to work out though, including dealing with the number of public safety agencies in Gwinnett , such as the county police department and sheriff’s offices as well as multiple municipal police agencies.

A separate agreement will be sussed out to handle the cooperation between public safety agencies, Nash said.

MARTA must work with Gwinnett on transit-oriented developments

A provision of the contract does ask MARTA to abide by Gwinnett County’s zoning rules when it works on transit oriented developments.

Transit-oriented developments are basically projects where private development is brought in on property MARTA owns, such as areas around transit stations.

“MARTA is a government entity (and) they don’t have to follow the zoning process, and we know that but we’ve asked them to agree to work with cooperatively with us related to development on property that they may ultimately own in the county,” Nash said.

That cooperative work would include letting Gwinnett planning and development officials review and give input on such projects.

“They’ve agreed to take those into consideration and try to make a good-faith effort to address our concerns,” Nash said. “Again, they’re a government entity so we don’t have the right to impose our zoning on them, but we do think it’s important to make sure that we’re working cooperatively with them on that.”

‘Not ashamed of this contract’

In all, Nash defended the agreement that was negotiated with MARTA, asserting that county leaders tried to make sure it benefited Gwinnett as much as possible.

“I’ve been dedicated to Gwinnett for a long, long time and I tried my best to come up with a good arrangement for Gwinnett,” she said. “People are welcome to talk with me about any sort of concerns. I know there’s already a lot of misinformation floating around about this, but from my perspective, the more people that can know about this contract and what’s included in it, the better.

“I’m not ashamed of this contract.”

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I'm a Crawford Long baby who grew up in Marietta and eventually wandered to the University of Southern Mississippi for college. Earned a BA in journalism (double minor in political science and history). Previously worked in Florida and Clayton County.

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