MARTA board approves contract with Gwinnett

MARTA’s Board of Directors deal with business items during their meeting in Atlanta Thursday. One of the items they took care of was approval of a contract to provide service to Gwinnett County, pending voter approval in March 2019. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

The MARTA Board of Directors approved the regional transit agency’s proposed contract with Gwinnett County to bring the county into its system Thursday.

The board had a month to review the contract, which county commissioners approved in early August, and decide whether they thought it was a good agreement for MARTA. The contract with Gwinnett County is different from agreements MARTA has with other member counties in that it lets local officials have greater authority over how tax collections are spent.

"I will just say how excited I am at the opportunity to help transform the region, the lives of the million-plus people who will live in Gwinnett county over the next several decades and the opportunity to work together to come one step closer to fulfilling the dream of a truly regional system," MARTA board Chairman Robbie Ashe said.

Voters still have the final say on whether Gwinnett County joins MARTA with a referendum set to take place in March 2019.

The contract lasts through July 1, 2057 and it calls for MARTA to absorb Gwinnett County Transit after an agreement can be reached with that transit system’s operator, Transdev. MARTA officials previously said they expect that to be accomplished quickly.

Gwinnett County would get three seats on the MARTA Board of Directors.

MARTA will also use the Connect Gwinnett Transit Plan as a guideline for building out service in Gwinnett and money collected in the county through a tax to support MARTA must be used in the county.

A key unique feature of the Gwinnett contract is the local control that is built into it. Gwinnett officials must approve fixed asset capital projects that MARTA wants to undertake in Gwinnett, such as transit stations. They must also approve any debt issued to pay for transit projects in the county, with the money used to pay off that debt coming from tax collections in Gwinnett.

DeKalb County officials have raised concerns about the contract and the differences between Gwinnett's agreement with MARTA and the ones in place for DeKalb. Several DeKalb residents called on the board to extend MARTA heavy rail along Interstate 20 to the Stonecrest Mall area.

An advisory committee would also be established to review the high-capacity program, which includes heavy rail and bus rapid transit, and make recommendations to both Gwinnett’s representatives on the MARTA board and county commissioners.

The collecting of those taxes will be done differently than they are done in Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties in that they will be labeled state funds and remitted to Gwinnett officials who will in turn make payments to MARTA. In other counties, the money is paid directly to the transit system.

Gwinnett will pay 29 percent of the funds collected each year to MARTA for the first six years to cover operations and maintenance costs. A “true-up” of funding for those purposes will occur on an annual basis and at the end of the first six years.

The county will also hold onto tax funds which are being set aside to pay for MARTA capital projects in Gwinnett. The county will on the hook, however, for the costs of anything that goes beyond what is seen elsewhere in the MARTA system, such as nicer bus stops, additional buses or extended service hours.

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I'm a Crawford Long baby who grew up in Marietta. I eventually wandered away from home and attended the University of Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg, Miss., where I first tried my hand at majoring in film for a couple of years. And then political sc