Gwinnett voters will have another shot at transit expansion this fall

The exterior of the Gwinnett County Transit Sugarloaf Mills Park and Ride, located at 1905 North Brown Road, in Lawrenceville, Friday, July 31, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Dorothy Shaw, 85, hasn’t driven since 2017. She’d love to be able to hop on public transportation to visit her sister in East Point or go to Manuel’s Tavern for a meeting of the Atlanta Grandmothers for Peace. But there aren’t any connections from her Gwinnett County home.

Still Shaw, who lives near Snellville, voted against a 2019 referendum that would have expanded transit in Gwinnett. She said she felt ostracized by her friends for voting no, but the plan didn’t improve access in her part of the county.

“I hated that I voted against it,” she said. “It was spending too much money into the future for something I didn’t think was a good program.”

Shaw said she’ll take another look at a new transit expansion plan Gwinnett voters will see on the November ballot. This time, if the plan will help her get out of her neighborhood, she’s likely to vote in favor.

“I want us to have a system,” she said. “I would like for it to work.”

This fall’s vote will be the second time in just a year and a half that Gwinnett residents will have a say about expanding transit in the county. It’s a quick revival after the March 2019 defeat, especially considering it took decades to bring the measure back for a vote following earlier failures in 1971 and 1990.

But now, advocates say, transit has become an imperative — not just in Gwinnett, but for metro Atlanta as a whole. With the average commute in the region taking 31 minutes each way — and Gwinnett’s taking even longer — the need to improve transportation options is only growing more stark.

“We’re definitely excited and supportive of Gwinnett’s efforts,” said Chris Tomlinson, the executive director of the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority. “It’s not only beneficial to Gwinnett, it’s significant to the entire region.”

A November vote

When Gwinnett voters rejected a plan to bring MARTA to the county last March, just 17% of voters showed up at the polls — more than initially expected for a special election, but fewer than 100,000 people in a county with a population rapidly approaching 1 million. They defeated the measure with 54% of the vote.

Since then, Gwinnett leaders have worked to improve their transit offerings. They’ve added service to some areas that weren’t getting very much. They’ve sped up the timeline, so transit is built out more quickly. They’ve decided MARTA will only operate a single heavy-rail extension, from the Doraville station to a planned transit hub at Jimmy Carter Boulevard. The rest of the system will be locally operated by the county, or whoever they choose to contract with.

But perhaps most importantly, they scheduled the vote for this fall, when a hotly contested presidential election will be on the ballot and voter turnout is expected to break records.

Brian Robinson, a Republican political strategist who worked for the pro-transit “Go Gwinnett” committee in 2019, said the timing will “greatly increase” the chances of approval.

“It’ll go from a tiny, highly driven electorate — where the opposition has an advantage — to a massive voter pool,” Robinson said. “If you poll the county at large, there’s majority support (for transit), so the bigger the electorate, the better chances of passage.”

Polls have indeed shown that a majority of Gwinnett residents are in favor of more transit. And while political alignment isn’t a sure-fire predictor, Democrats are generally more likely to back public transportation and Gwinnett grows bluer by the day.

Transit advocates would’ve preferred the last referendum be decided in the Nov. 2018 general election: a cycle where Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams won Gwinnett by some 14 points; the two Republican county commissioners on the ballot were ousted; and Gwinnett’s delegation to the state legislature flipped from a GOP majority to a Democratic one.

That didn’t happen.

Commissioners instead called the referendum for March 2019, a move Chairman Charlotte Nash said at the time was about having as much support from her colleagues as possible.

But transit advocates and Democrats quickly called foul, suggesting the maneuver was an attempt to 1) kill the transit issue and 2) avoid giving Gwinnett’s growing legion of left-leaning voters more motivation to turn out for the races already on November’s ballot.

Later, Commissioner John Heard all but confirmed as much, saying state Republican officials had suggested the referendum be moved.

Bianca Keaton, chair of the Gwinnett Democratic Party, said she expects to “get the result that we would’ve gotten had it been in November of 2018” this fall.

But Joe Newton, the Norcross resident who last year’s opposition effort through his “No MARTA in Gwinnett” Facebook page, said the timing won’t make a difference.

“Smart people don’t ride transit,” Newton said. “They’re going to get beat worse this time than they were last time. A lot worse.”

Reasons to worry

Though county leaders have made significant efforts to improve their chances of passing a referendum, there are still tangible reasons for transit advocates to worry about the outcome.

The biggest is the timing of an election during a global pandemic, when unemployment is high and people may not be inclined to raise their own taxes to pay for something that won’t provide benefit for many years.

By approving the referendum, voters would be opting into a new 1% sales tax for the next 30 years.

“Obviously, I would think people are less likely to vote to increase taxes at a time like this,” said Raymond Hill, a senior lecturer at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.

That’s true for Brad Goff, who said the tax increase is enough to make him vote no. The 66-year-old, who owns a frozen foods business in the Lawrenceville area, said he generally thinks transit expansion could be a good idea and the extra sales tax wouldn’t kill him. But there are others who are hurting far more.

“You’re really stabbing the people in the back who are hurting the most,” Goff said.

But Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Latino advocacy group GALEO, said having reliable access to transportation is important enough that it’s worth an extra cent to ensure people can get to jobs.

Without an investment in transit, Gonzalez said, the county will choke economically.

For other voters, the long presidential ballot could also be an issue. Contests at the bottom of a ballot tend to have fewer votes than those at the top. In addition to the presidential contest, there are a number of other important races on the ballot, including two senate seats, the Gwinnett sheriff and chairman of the county commission.

Additionally, Hill said, local bus service — of which the plan has a great deal — is a more effective way to spend tax dollars than big-ticket projects like an extension of MARTA heavy rail. The four-mile extension from Doraville into the Norcross area will run about $2.1 billion, roughly 17% of the $12.1 billion expected to be collected.

That alone is enough to get some people to vote no.

“Heavy rail, that’s just stupid, that’s stone-age thinking,” said Bradford Beaton, a Suwanee-area resident who rides an express bus to work in Atlanta but voted against the 2019 measure because he favors autonomous vehicles. “If you’re partnering with MARTA, it’s a no-go.”

Others are frustrated by the fact that Gwinnett is asking voters to reconsider transit so soon after the measure failed. Tommy Hunter, a Republican county commissioner who was the lone vote against holding the referendum again, said he thinks to vote again so soon negates the earlier will of everyone who said no.

“I’m going to vote against it and most everyone I know is going to vote against it,” Hunter said. “I’m going to throw them under the bus every chance I get.”

A different plan

But Nash, the Republican commission chairman, said the proposal that’s in front of voters this time is necessarily different.

“If at first you don’t succeed, you go back to the drawing board and try another approach if you believe it’s important, and I believe transit is important,” she said.

One of the major changes is the operator of the service. If the measure had passed in 2019, the county would have joined the city of Atlanta and Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties as part of the MARTA system.

While MARTA will operate the heavy rail portion of the system under the current proposal, the rest will be managed by Gwinnett County or an operator it contracts with. Commissioner Ben Ku said the distinction means the county will “control our own destiny.”

“I think it makes a big difference,” the Democrat said. “This is not joining MARTA.”

Some voters embrace the changes. Neither Duluth resident Chris Sheppard nor Snellville resident Stephen Kraus expect to use any county transit system for their own commutes. But they both voted yes in 2019, and intend to do so again.

“Other people can’t afford a car, or have no time to sit in traffic,” Kraus said. “It’s not about me.”

Emory Morsberger, a transit advocate and executive director of the Gateway 85 Community Improvement District, said he thinks this plan better serves the county. It should therefore receive stronger support, even though many people have worked from home since March.

“People hopefully remember what it was like to sit on I-85 for an hour each way each day,” he said. “The current speed of flow isn’t going to last once the virus is cured.”

If it doesn’t pass this year, Morsberger said, it will likely be several more years before transit is again on the ballot.

Robbie Ashe, the immediate past president of the MARTA board, said commissioners will have to “fundamentally rethink what’s going on” if the transit referendum again fails. But he said he’s confident that it won’t.

“Transit in Gwinnett County is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” he said.

In Other News