Gwinnett County commissioners have still not committed officially to putting a transit referendum on the general election ballot in November, but there are some indications that they might do so.
During an informal discussion the commission had on transit expansion this past week, Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said a meeting with representative of Gwinnett’s 16 cities is scheduled to take place May 28.
“That has to be done 60 days before the referendum call, per the statute related to (Georgia’s) new transit tax, so that’s keeping one funding source open for us by meeting those deadlines,” Nash told her fellow commissioners.
There is still a lot of unknowns about the future of transit expansion in Gwinnett. Although Nash’s comment about meeting with the cities — which will be designed to just take comments from the participants — indicates commissioners are looking at putting the issue on the November ballot, it does not outright confirm that will happen.
The last MARTA referendum had been penciled in for November 2018 up until the last minute, when commissioners suddenly decided to hold the referendum in March 2019 instead, so anything could theoretically happen.
But commissioners are looking at making a decision in July on a referendum.
“In my mind, I’ve got the third week of July programmed in,” Nash told her colleagues on the commission.
And, then there’s the issue of what shape the expansion would take. There would have to be an agreement on a project list.
Then there’s the MARTA questions.
The referendum that went before voters last year was on joining MARTA and using the Connect Gwinnett Transit Plan as a blueprint for service in the county. That plan was rejected by voters.
Whether Gwinnett might join MARTA as part of its transit expansion is still a question that is out there to be decided although some commissioners appear to be leaning in that direction.
“Are we already starting contract negotiations with MARTA or would we be waiting until all of that’s done,” Commissioner Ben Ku asked Nash.
The chairwoman was tight lipped publicly on that issue.
“I would rather talk about that individually,” she told Ku.
“Does the referendum project list have to go before ATL even if we chose to go with MARTA, contract with MARTA,” Commissioner Jace Brooks then asked.
“I think ATL’s position is going to be that it does, that it has to come back regardless,” Nash said.
But there are other issues commissioners still have to sort out as well. A revised project list submitted to the Atlanta Transit Link Authority board does include heavy rail to at least Jimmy Carter Boulevard, that project list is more of a menu listing things that the county can chose from when putting together a project list for a referendum vote.
“The big question that we’ve got to answer is whether we’re going to include rail or not in the proposed set of projects that we select,” Nash said. “I know we’ve got differences of opinion on that and I think I have said out loud to most of y’all I am my own best debate opponent on this topic.
“I can argue both sides of the question and have done it with myself already. I know this is going to be the toughest part of the decision.”
But, even that decision — or the timing of when it has to be made, to be exact — indicates commissioners appear to be putting pieces in place to hold a referendum in November.
The ATL board is expected to vote on accepting Gwinnett’s revised transit expansion plan at the end of the month. Local officials can’t finalize a referendum project list until after the plan is accepted.
“Our projects that we ultimately select, the package that we want to put on the referendum, has to go back to the ATL board for them to approve that subset of projects before we can move forward with the referendum,” Nash said. “I’ll add that we’ll make the decision after Memorial Day, but we can’t carry too long into June in making that decision. It’s got to be done within the first two weeks of June.
“Otherwise, we run into problems with getting the approval from the ATL board in time to make the call for the referendum when it has to be made.”