Early voting in Gwinnett County's historic transit referendum starts Monday. And while it's been nearly three decades since the county's voters last weighed in on MARTA, soundly rejecting it, the build-up has been a revival of sorts for many of the same old fears of yesteryear:
The fear of transit increasing crime.
The fear of transit decreasing property values.
The fear that MARTA will mismanage tax dollars.
These worries that have traditionally driven a distrust of public transportation in the suburbs are still alive and a hurdle for the referendum. If Gwinnett can overcome those fears and win an approval, it could set the stage for other metro counties to reconsider transit.
Gwinnett and MARTA officials know all about those objections. MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker recently spoke to a group of Gwinnett voters and addressed each of the three big fears even before he was asked. Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash worked to address the fears in the contract she helped hammer out with MARTA, which would be enacted if a majority of voters vote ‘yes’ on the referendum.
“I’ve been here in the community all my life, so I have heard just about every concern that would be expressed over transit generally, and over contracting with MARTA specifically,” Nash said. “It was no accident that a number of those things are covered in the contract.”
Among those contract caveats:
Giving the county more control over how its sales tax dollars are spent by MARTA.
Giving the county more say in the quality and design of MARTA projects brought to the county.
An agreement to create a more thorough contract for cooperation between MARTA and the county's law enforcement agencies.
But are such fears even valid?
The AJC’s review of financial records, academic studies, input from experts and previous reporting found that, as things currently exist, many of the traditional fears driving suburban Atlanta’s resistance to mass transit are largely unfounded. The presence of transit rarely has a direct negative effect on crime or property values.
And while the distrust of MARTA’s financial management has been justified in the past, the transit agency has done much in recent years to help upend that reputation.
Prior to Gwinnett's MARTA referendum being called, now-former county commissioner John Heard called the transit agency a "tax-eating boondoggle." He was echoing a long-held sentiment that has been confirmed by news of misspending in the agency — but such worries may be growing increasingly baseless.
Since then, the agency’s financial outlook has improved dramatically, and many lawmakers now sing its praises. MARTA has run budget surpluses for six straight years, and it has $204.4 million in reserves for a $981.5 million 2019 budget.
Keith Parker got much of the credit for turning the agency around, in part by controlling costs. But MARTA also benefited from metro Atlanta’s strong economy, which has boosted the agency’s annual sales tax receipts by tens of millions of dollars since the Great Recession.
The three major credit rating agencies rate MARTA’s financial outlook “stable,” citing the region’s strong economy and the agency’s budget reserve and revenue growth.
It hasn't all been good news for MARTA. Last year a former senior executive was sentenced to federal prison for a false-invoice scheme that cost the agency $500,000. Another employee pleaded guilty in the same scheme.
And MARTA still faces financial challenges. Its fleet of rail cars is aging, and replacing the cars will cost hundreds of millions of dollars in coming years. The agency's new labor contract – which includes a variety of pay hikes for employees – will cost $41 million over three years.
What's more, current GM Jeffrey Parker wants to loosen MARTA's purse strings to improve customer service and renovate stations.
Addressing such concerns might require more revenue. Parker says the agency may need to raise fares in the next couple years – something it hasn’t done since 2011 when a one-way fare was raised to $2.50.
“It never ends,” Parker said of the agency’s effort to improve service. “This is a highly complex system that we run.
“We will never be perfect,” he said. “But we need to aspire to be.”
The crime element
Michael Beck lives in Hamilton Mill, the area of eastern Gwinnett that proudly retains its sprawling subdivisions, its chain restaurants and its resistance to the full-fledged urbanization that’s crept over other parts of the county.
Beck's also an administrator of the "No MARTA Gwinnett" Facebook page, which has about 200 members — and you can count him among the crowd that believes more transit in Gwinnett would mean more crime.
“Anyone that denies that public transportation helps spread crime is just wrong, they’re just plain wrong,” Beck said recently. “I’ve been a police officer before. … I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”
It’s a claim that’s as old as mass transit and one that critics say is often used as a disguise for racism. It’s also one that multiple studies have refuted.
A 2003 study published in the Southern Economic Journal examined transit’s impact on crime in Atlanta by analyzing neighborhood crime data. It found that a variety of factors such as median income level and density of poverty could determine how much of an increase in crime transit could bring to an area.
It found that the mix of those factors in poorer “central city” neighborhoods could lead to an increase in crime rates — but it also found that transit’s presence may actually reduce crime in the suburbs.
“There is no evidence … that suburban residents should fear that crime will rise in their neighborhood if rail lines are extended beyond central city boundaries,” the study, conducted by Keith R. Ihlanfeldt, a political scientist formerly with Georgia State University, concluded.
Another oft-cited study published in the Journal of Urban Affairs in 1996 examined crime around MARTA’s Kensington and Indian Creek rail stops, before those stations opened and during the 18 months afterward.
The study conducted by Georgia State University professor Theodore Poister found that a few of the 12 crimes that were tracked — larceny and vagrancy at one station, burglary at the other — did see a bump shortly after a station opened. Yet any increase appeared “relatively slight and short-lived.”
More recent studies examining the affect of light rail expansions in Charlotte, N.C., and Vancouver, British Columbia, found that crime actually decreased around new stops.
In a recent public hearing on the Gwinnett referendum, questions were raised about crime in Clayton County since it began a new MARTA-run bus service. A Clayton police official said the overall crime rate has dropped in the years since the 2014 county referendum that brought the bus, but added that it can’t be attributed to the arrival of transit.
A previous analysis by The AJC found that, in 2015, MARTA had a rate of about 30 violent crimes (homicides, rapes, robberies and assaults) per 100,000 riders. That was comparable to the system in Washington, D.C., and significantly less than San Francisco's BART system, which had a rate of 44. MARTA's rate that year was higher than the 23 posted by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
“I think [increased crime] is a misconception of a time gone by,” said Emory Morsberger, a longtime Gwinnett developer and former MARTA board member. “The thought of someone riding MARTA out and stealing our TV and taking it back to the city was an interesting picture, but it wasn’t real.”
The fear about declining property values is largely tied to the fear about crime. But just as with crime, there’s little concrete evidence that having transit nearby harms property values.
Arthur C. Nelson, a former Georgia Tech professor who now works at the University of Arizona, said public transportation is unlikely to create such a decline “under most circumstances.”
“Badly designed heavy rail (train) stations in residential neighborhoods can reduce values as they did in the Bay Area (of California) before BART wised up and redid them” to better mitigate things like noise and vibration, Nelson said. “MARTA actually anticipated potential ill effects at residential stations and designed them to reduce if not eliminate adverse impacts. MARTA became a good model for the rest of the nation.”
A 1992 study Nelson conducted examined property values along MARTA’s east line. It found that proximity to rail increased home prices in what were already low-income neighborhoods and a “slight negative effect” in high income areas, though he wrote it was hard to determine the role proximity to nearby low-income areas and industrial uses also played.
Another study suggested that transit appears most likely to increase property values not just because of accessibility but by spurring new development.
MARTA has seen this in recent years, with a number of developments specifically oriented around transit stations in various states of construction. Insurance giant State Farm is building its new Dunwoody campus with direct access to a rail station. Mark Toro — the head of North American Properties, which is behind Alpharetta's popular Avalon development and others — has openly lobbied for transit to connect to his Revel project at Gwinnett's Infinite Energy Center project.
Last summer, real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield published a report called “The Growing MARTA Market.” The analysis called the appetite for proximity to MARTA “insatiable.”
GWINNETT’S 2019 MARTA REFERENDUM
The ballot question: "Voters will see the ballot question phrased this way when they visit the polls: "Gwinnett County has executed a contract for the provision of transit services, dated as of August 2, 2018. Shall this contract be approved? YES __ NO __"
What it means: A yes vote would be a vote in support of ratifying Gwinnett's pending transit service contract with MARTA, allowing it to take over Gwinnett's current transit services and greatly expand them — including a possible rail extension into the Norcross area and an extensive bus system with diverse options.
A yes vote would also trigger a new 1 percent sales tax to pay for such projects. Purchases in Gwinnett are currently subject to 6 percent sales tax. The new countywide sales tax would remain in effect until 2057 and garner billions of dollars. Collected funds would be remitted to Gwinnett County, which would then write checks to MARTA for projects and operations.
Key dates: Election Day is March 19.
Advance in-person voting starts Monday at the Gwinnett elections office (455 Grayson Highway in Lawrenceville) and will be held there every day through March 15, including weekends.
Between March 4 and 15, advance in-person voting will also be held at several satellite locations. Those can be found at gwinnettcounty.com. Hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
AJC’s COMPLETE COVERAGE
Gwinnett voters will go the polls on March 19 in a historic special election that could change the face of metro Atlanta’s suburbs.
Residents there will decide if Georgia’s second most populous county will join the MARTA system and chip in a new 1 percent sales tax to pay for billions of dollars in transit improvements. A successful referendum in Gwinnett may ignite action for more mass transit in other metro Atlanta counties that have long been resistant to the idea.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will provide comprehensive coverage leading up to the vote and on Election Day. Our reporters will help readers understand the issues, the key players, what’s at stake, and provide information for voters to make an informed decision at the ballot box.