To hold a vote on joining MARTA this year, or not to hold hold a vote on joining MARTA this year? That is the question Gwinnett County commissioners will have to answer in the next few months.
The metro Atlanta transit system, which serves Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties but was originally intended to serve Gwinnett and Cobb too, has been a presence looming in the background of conversations about transportation in Gwinnett in recent years.
It’s popped up in a Gwinnett Chamber study, the Gr8 Exchange on Transportation and even in the county’s recently finished transit development plan, which includes some MARTA-style heavy rail.
In recent months, however, it has become more present in light of a clause in the regional transit bill that was signed into law earlier this year, which sets up a mechanism for Gwinnett to hold a MARTA referendum as early as November.
“It’s coming at some point,” said Duluth City Councilman Kirkland Carden, a proponent of holding a MARTA referendum. “I think (county leaders have) found religion and it’s only a matter of time.”
The question of whether Gwinnett voters will even be voting on whether to join MARTA is far from settled.
Though the regional transit bill offers a referendum on joining the metro system as one option available to the county, it also offers the option of a Gwinnett-specific transportation special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST). That would fall under the Atlanta-region Transit Link Authority, known as The ATL, that will come into existence in January.
How soon could, or should, a decision on a MARTA vote be made?
The regional transit bill, House Bill 930, changed how soon Gwinnett leaders have to make a decision, dropping a deadline from the MARTA Act that would have required a decision to made at the beginning of July and tying the decision instead to the same time frame used for calling special elections.
That could, in theory, mean the county can make a decision as late as the beginning of October, though commissioners would need to consider when the county’s elections office needs a decision in order to get the referendum on early and absentee ballots.
“There are some practical considerations, so I think a decision to call for a referendum probably needs to happen in August,” Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said.
That is not, however, a commitment to hold a referendum this fall. Nash left a wide time period open for when a vote could take place.
“I’m convinced sometime as early as November 2018 or as late as March 2020, there will be a referendum on transit in Gwinnett,” she said.
At least one county commissioner, however, doesn’t want to wait on holding a vote on MARTA.
Commissioner Lynette Howard said a referendum on whether Gwinnett should join the transit system should be held this fall. Not committing to join the regional transit agency before The ATL goes into affect would be a lost opportunity, she said.
“It’s an opportunity for us to have the biggest voice,” she said. “For me, having the wisdom of Gwinnett in anything — we have a standard and we solve problems together.”
Howard said Gwinnett could have three seats on the MARTA board if it holds a referendum this fall. After The ATL goes into effect, however, she said “We miss our opportunity to be able to have representation” on both the MARTA and The ATL boards.
“The more representation that Gwinnett can have, the more we can have the Gwinnett standard applied to how transit is done in the region,” Howard said. “The Gwinnett standard is so important to the future of transit, not only in Gwinnett, but in the region.”
There have been several groups that recently began calling on county commissioners to issue a call for a MARTA referendum soon. Georgia Conservation Voters was the first group, but the Georgia Sierra Club recently urged residents through Facebook to speak at the June 26 county commission meeting in favor of a MARTA vote.
Georgia Conservation Voters Executive Director Colleen Kiernan said the county still has little time left to make a decision on holding a MARTA referendum this year, even if the regional transit bill gave them more breathing room.
Kiernan is the former director of the Georgia Sierra Club, which was heavily involved in efforts to get MARTA passed in Clayton County in 2014.
“If they want to hold it in conjunction with the general election, they need to call it 90 days in advance,” she said.
That would mean a decision on whether to call for the referendum would need to be made no later than the beginning of August.
Are political views on transit changing?
If a MARTA referendum is held this fall, it will be on a ballot that is already loaded with contested political races.
The November ballot will already feature statewide elections for offices such as governor and lieutenant governor, as well as elections for legislative seats and two spots on the county commission.
Carden pointed to Democratic commission District 2 candidate Ben Ku’s transportation-heavy campaign message as a sign that the issue will be key in local elections this year. Ku is running against Howard, a Republican, for her seat on the commission this year.
In 2016, former Gwinnett County Democratic Party Chairman Jim Shealey ran against Nash for chairman on a transportation-centric message and he earned 47 percent of the vote in that year’s general election.
“Who knows,” Carden said. “Elections have consequences. You may an election this year where it’s like let one person lose or enough people lose and (county leaders will) be like ‘We need to move on this.’”
Howard said attitudes about transit — even MARTA — are changing among Republicans, however, and that it is becoming more accepted to look at it as part of a transportation solution for metro Atlanta.
“I think the realization (is setting in) that building more roads is just not going to happen,” she said. “I mean where else are we going to take it? Are we going to take out businesses? Neighborhoods? Are going to start stacking them and building tunnels underneath all over Gwinnett?
“I mean we have to do something, and if we can get a portion of the people to ride a transit system (and) to take those cars off the road (then) our trucks can get through.”
MARTA may come to Gwinnett one way or another
One thing that is certain, regardless of which referendum Gwinnett leaders chose to go with, is that any heavy rail lines built in the county will be run by MARTA.
The Connect Gwinnett Transit Plan calls for extending heavy rail, the type of rail service MARTA uses, from the Doraville MARTA station to a multi-modal hub on the Jimmy Carter Boulevard corridor. A Long-Range Phase II part of the plan recommends eventually extending that to Gwinnett Place Mall, but that would be more than 30 years away from happening.
“We know if there’s a heavy rail extension, MARTA’s going to operate it, no matter what,” said Cristina Pastore, a consultant from Kimley-Horn, the firm that worked on the Connect Gwinnett plan. “We knew that before, but now it’s been dictated in HB 930 that MARTA will be the sole heavy rail operator in the region.”
Gwinnett’s new transit plan will play a role in the future either way
Whether the referendum in Gwinnett focuses on MARTA or a project list from The ATL, Nash said she sees the Connect Gwinnett Transit Plan being a big influence in what residents get.
In addition to a heavy rail line, the plan lays out a blueprint for an extensive expansion of bus-related transit, including more local service, express service and paratransit service.
It also includes plans for bus rapid transit lines that would connect Lawrenceville to Peachtree Corners, Snellville to the Indian Creek MARTA station in DeKalb and the Infinite Energy Center to Doraville. Rapid bus, which has been described as a light version of BRT, is also in the plan.
“I think the plan for service is the same regardless of which approach the county takes,” Nash said. “We’ve obviously invested a lot of time, energy and money into developing the plan. I think the validity of the plan doesn’t change with whatever mode of delivery.”
Pastore echoed those sentiments, and while she acknowledged the existence of the regional house bill, she said the team that worked on the transit plan did not to design it to favor either The ATL or MARTA.
“We were operator neutral,” she said. “It developing this plan, it is completely operator neutral. It was driven by what the needs are and what the potential revenues are.”
Nash said the county would look at any suggested changes offered up by officials at MARTA, the Atlanta Regional Commission or The ATL — the plan is intended to be flexible over a 30-year time period, she said — but she expects county leaders would stick with the overarching spirit of the recommendations that came from residents input.
“For me personally, I’m going to have to hear and see a lot of really strong arguments to say we’re going to do something different,” Nash said.