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Transit bill could mean Gwinnett MARTA vote this fall

Gwinnett County residents could vote on joining MARTA this fall under a provision of a transit bill that passed a key legislative hurdle late Thursday.

House Bill 930 passed the House Transportation Committee by a unanimous vote. Among numerous amendments the committee approved is one that would allow Georgia’s second-largest county to join a MARTA system it has resisted joining for decades.

County voters have twice rejected proposals to join MARTA, most recently in 1990. As recently as last fall, elected officials there said a MARTA vote would be an “uphill battle.”

But explosive growth and hundreds of thousands of new residents in recent decades have meant changing attitudes about mass transit. In November an Atlanta Regional Commission survey found 56 percent of Gwinnett residents were willing to pay higher taxes to expand mass transit.

Gwinnett County operates its own bus service, but could get a chance to join MARTA under House Bill 930. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Gwinnett Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said county officials have not decided to call a vote to join MARTA this year.

“The language that is in the bill provides an option that Gwinnett may or may not utilize,” Nash told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “If the language survives (the legislative process), it will be up to the entire Board of Commissioners to decide how and when to proceed.”

Gwinnett is finishing work on a mass transit plan and has been building toward a November referendum on a specific list of projects that has yet to be unveiled. But the county needs approval from the General Assembly to collect a transit tax for 30 years or more to help pay for a package of projects that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Under HB 930, the county’s only option for a transit vote this year would be to join MARTA. The other alternative: Gwinnett could wait more than a year to hold a transit referendum that does not involve joining MARTA.

The bill would allow any county in the 13-county metro Atlanta area to hold a referendum on a transit sales tax of up to 1 percent. But the list of projects for voters to consider must be approved by a new regional transit board the legislation would create. And that board would not be formed until next January.

That means if Gwinnett wants a transit vote this year, joining MARTA is the only option. A provision in the bill would allow Gwinnett to hold that vote.

The bill does not force Gwinnett County to join MARTA. Before such a vote could happen, the County Commission and MARTA would have to reach an agreement on a project list, the size of the sales tax and other particulars. Clayton County took a similar route to joining MARTA in 2014.

Gwinnett operates its own bus system, and county officials have signaled an interest in bus rapid transit lines - not necessarily MARTA rail service.

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