Douglas County debate shows metro Atlanta transit remains a divisive issue

This week Douglas County joined the growing ranks of metro Atlanta communities hoping to expand mass transit, and it wasn’t a pretty scene.

At the Tuesday county commission meeting, the room was divided, with transit supporters in white shirts and opponents in red. Commissioners bickered about the merits of a plan to launch local bus service. After they voted 3-2 to accept a federal grant to help pay for it, the white shirts were elated, while at least one opponent wiped tears from her eyes.

VIDEO: More on mass transit expansion

It was a fitting end to a months-long debate that featured a surprise vote, contentious community meetings and last-minute changes to the plan itself. And it shows public transportation remains a hot-button issue in parts of metro Atlanta, despite recent momentum for transit expansion.

In May, Gov. Nathan Deal signed legislation that would allow 13 local counties to raise money for new bus and rail service. FultonGwinnettCobbDeKalb and Clayton counties have, to varying degrees, signaled they're ready.

But some suburban counties are in no hurry to embrace transit. And if the recent debate in Douglas County is any indication, even some that seek it may face bitter debates that pit residents who want urban-style services against those who want to preserve the suburban or rural character of their communities.

“This whole issue had divided this county,” Douglas Commissioner Ann Jones Guider said Tuesday as she surveyed an audience of white and red shirts. “You can look at this room and see the division.”

Mass transit wasn’t always a divisive issue in Douglas, a county of 144,000 people along I-20 west of Atlanta.

The state operates commuter buses from Douglas to downtown and Midtown Atlanta. The county runs dozens of commuter vanpools to such far-flung destinations as Perimeter Center, the Emory University/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention area and Anniston, Ala. It also offers vouchers to help seniors and those with disabilities with transportation.

Last year, with little controversy, commissioners agreed to seek federal funding for the county’s first two local bus routes. The 15-passenger buses would carry customers to destinations in and around Douglasville, the county seat.

Then the bus plans changed, and so did the tenor of the public discussion.

Last October, the commission’s transportation committee voted to add two more proposed routes to the county’s grant application. One routes would include a sliver of Cobb County, while the other would connect to the Hamilton E. Holmes MARTA Station in Atlanta. Committee Chairman Kelly Robinson said the move was made to give the county a better shot at federal funding.

The committee’s decision caught many residents by surprise. Some have accused members of violating open meeting requirements by acting without public notice.

“The process was a disaster,” said Heather Denis of the Douglas County People’s Action Committee, which organized to protest the decision. “It divided the county.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Robinson said the process didn’t cause the division.

“It was always here,”he said. “This just brought it to the forefront.”

Like the rest of metro Atlanta, Douglas County has seen dramatic growth in recent years. Its population has surged 9 percent since 2010 and is expected to grow another 40 percent to 201,000 by 2040.

That growth has brought more development and population density to the county — and disagreements about how to respond to it.

Kelly Honey moved to Douglas County to enjoy a rural lifestyle. She said she’s not opposed to transit – she just doesn’t want to pay for something that won’t even serve her part of the county.

“There are people who can’t get around,” Honey said. “Let’s help them a little. But let’s not give them the whole pie. And let’s not make it so I have to pay for it all.”

Residents like Delores Franklin support the additional bus routes. A retired West Georgia Technical College professor, she recalled a student who took four years to graduate instead of two because she had a hard time getting to school. She took a cab, paying $20 each way and working more hours to cover the cost.

Franklin said better transit options would help many people. She called transit opponents “people who are stuck in the past and not wanting to move forward.”

As it grows, Douglas County is also becoming more diverse. The white population has fallen from 76 percent of the population in 2000 to less than 44 percent in 2015, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. Some believe growing racial diversity and poverty have fed transit opposition.

“There are people here who are afraid of diversity,” said resident Free Polazzo, who supports more transit. “The buses became a symbol.”

Critics of the transit plan say the issue is not about race, but fiscal responsibility. If Douglas wins the three-year, $4.8 million federal grant, it will still have to pitch in $1.2 million to pay for the bus service. After the grant runs out, the entire cost may be borne by county taxpayers.

Critics also say the service area for the fixed bus service will be limited. Guider, a Republican commissioner, said a “dial-a-ride” transportation service – which would transport individual residents where they need to go – would serve the entire county at a lower cost. The county plans to offer such a service after it launches the new bus routes in early 2019.

The politics of Douglas County has changed along with its population. Though once solidly Republican, Democrats took control of the County Commission in the 2016 election.

The commission’s three Democrats – all of them African American – cast the deciding votes Tuesday in favor of moving the transit proposal forward. The two white Republicans voted “no.”

Commissioners also voted to change one of the new bus routes, so that it no longer connects to MARTA. But many critics were not appeased.

Even some transit supporters agree the process that led to this week’s decision was unnecessarily divisive.

“We created this,” said Commissioner Henry Mitchell, who voted to advance the transit expansion. “It’s disappointing to see this.”

Metro Atlanta transit expansion

The issue: In May, Gov. Nathan Deal signed legislation allowing 13 metro Atlanta counties to raise sales taxes for transit expansion.

The debate: Some counties, like Gwinnett and Fulton, plan to ask voters to approves new transit taxes. Others want nothing to do with mass transit.

What's next: Gwinnett voters will decide whether to join MARTA next March. Fulton County elected officials are still debating when to schedule a referendum. Other counties — like Cobb and DeKalb — also may vote on transit expansions in the next few years.