By Maggie Lee
As MARTA and Gwinnett move toward a possible embrace, some in DeKalb are feeling jilted.
On Thursday afternoon, MARTA’s board of directors unanimously approved the contract under which Gwinnett County would join the transit system, if that county’s voters approve in March.
Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash has been working on the deal for months and was in the room for the vote. She said she was thrilled to be at the point of having approval from the MARTA board and her own commission.
“When I look at that list I’m very excited about what it’s not only going to do for Gwinnett, but what it’s going to do for regional transit,” she said.
It’ll not just deliver Gwinnetians to the metro, but bring folks from other counties to her county.
The vote took just a few minutes, though it’s part of a story dating back decades.
Gwinnett would join MARTA under a different set of rules than the ones under which Fulton and DeKalb voters approved starting a joint transit system decades ago — terms that Gwinnett voters rejected at the time.
For example, in Gwinnett major capital projects like a heavy rail station would require county commission approval. And Gwinnett’s deal sets up a good bit more contractural reservation of Gwinnett’s funds for Gwinnett service. That second point is similar to the terms under which Clayton County joined the system in 2014.
DeKalb’s top political leadership took the moment of Gwinnett passage to say “welcome,” but also that they need guarantees of better service in their own county.
“We welcome new participating jurisdictions to MARTA, however, we must address important deficiencies in the contract and in the level and quality of service that MARTA has delivered in DeKalb,” reads part of a letter from DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond and Jeff Rader, presiding officer of the county board of commissioners.
The two wrote that there are longstanding service deficiencies in DeKalb, including the extent, quality and reliability of DeKalb bus service, paratransit and amenities like bus stops and shelters.
As that letter was being read into the record at MARTA’s board meeting, perhaps a dozen members of the audience stood up.
They had all come to the meeting to demand more and better service in east and south DeKalb, including bus shelters, benches, and heavy rail to Stonecrest.
That idea has been on the drawing board for too long and south and east DeKalb residents are paying a penny sales tax for service they’re not getting, said John Evans, a former MARTA board member and part of a new group called the Transit Equity Coalition.
“You ought to be refunding our money,” Evans told the board. He called on them to start by passing a resolution saying they support hard rail along Interstate 20 to Stonecrest.
MARTA has been working on the environmental process for several years to clear that heavy rail project, but there have never been the funds to advance it or to get the local funds to match in order to compete for federal funds, said MARTA CEO and General Manager Jeffrey Parker after the meeting.
Heavy rail is the most expensive kind of transit to build. It can’t be wrung from finding efficiencies in DeKalb’s existing revenue for MARTA, said MARTA board Chairman Robbie Ashe after the meeting. He said it would take some new money beyond DeKalb’s one-cent MARTA sales tax to pay for it.
DeKalb is working on a countywide transit plan. Gwinnett recently finished the same kind of process and the maps Gwinnett drew are the blueprint for what MARTA will do if voters OK it. The transit agency is similarly looking for cues and direction — and cash — for any major capital project not from within, but from DeKalb itself.
“The county needs to focus on what the priorities are for the county in terms of investment in transit,” said Parker. “We’re prepared to support their priorities.”