Participants fill in a volunteer form during a kickoff meeting Jan. 11, 2019, of Go Gwinnett, a group pushing for Gwinnett voters to approve of joining MARTA. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Gwinnett business leaders make their case for MARTA, transit expansion

Gwinnett business leaders are publicly lining up behind the county’s upcoming MARTA referendum, calling expanded transit options necessary to help the community stay competitive and attractive to companies and their workforces.

The outcome of the referendum could also have wider impact across Atlanta. Approval by Gwinnett’s voters may help pave the way for a more expansive, more regional transit system, an offering increasingly desired by big-time businesses looking to relocate or expand.

VIDEO: Previous coverage of this issue

: The $2 billion plan has been debated for the past two years.

Rejection in Gwinnett could stop the burgeoning metro Atlanta transit movement in its tracks.

“When you look at high-performing, growing communities around the country, and around the world frankly, they have transportation alternatives,” said Gwinnett Chamber CEO Dan Kaufman. “And we don’t.”

The three dozen or so members of the Chamber’s board of directors recently adopted a resolution in support of the March 19 referendum, calling the development of transportation alternatives “vital for retaining and attracting new and expanded business” and deeming the county’s pending contract with MARTA a “desirable arrangement.”

If the referendum is approved, that contract would be ratified and Gwinnett residents would pay a new 1 percent sales tax until 2057 to pay for transit improvements. Those improvements — which would follow a plan previously adopted by county leaders — would include an extension of MARTA’s passenger rail system from Doraville into the Norcross area; expanded local bus service; and several “bus rapid transit” lines, among other offerings.

The Chamber board’s resolution urged voters to approve the measure.

“Sustained and adequate funding for the creation of a regionally connected transit system is key to the ability of Gwinnett County to provide all residents and businesses of the county with the mobility and transportation services needed to sustain a vibrant and growing community,” it said.

Opponents to Gwinnett’s MARTA push offer a variety of reasons. They include a desire not to pay more taxes; an opinion that the transit plan doesn’t provide enough service to the entire county; and an aversion to MARTA specifically, which they feel has a historical reputation for mismanagement.

Gwinnett is in many ways already an economic development force to be reckoned with, thanks in large part to its school system, its diversity and its relative proximity to Atlanta. It’s home to more than 600 international businesses. Development has recaptured much of its pre-Recession mojo, particularly around the county’s municipalities.

But Gwinnett has felt the sting produced by a lack of transportation alternatives more than once in recent years.

Longtime Gwinnett businesses like technology giant NCR and paper company WestRock have moved all or parts of their operations out of the suburban county and into areas closer to mass transit.

At a December ceremony with then-Gov. Nathan Deal, international shipping company Hapag-Lloyd announced it was expanding its operations in Gwinnett with more than 350 new jobs.

Uffe Ostergaard, president of Hapag-Lloyd’s North America region, said at the time that the mere potential of more Gwinnett transit options was “something that really helped” with the company’s decision to expand within the county.

At the same ceremony, Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said transit would “check another box” for companies looking to relocate to or expand in the county.

“Anything that’s good for the residents is good for the workforce, and in turn that’s good for business as well,” she said.

The referendum is likely to be tightly contested and turnout will be key. But recent surveys and polls have suggested that a majority of Gwinnettians have both the appetite for more transit and the willingness to pay a new sales tax to pay for it. The one-time Republican stronghold has also grown increasingly left-leaning in recent election cycles.

The fact that community leaders like those at the Chamber feel comfortable openly advocating for MARTA, which has twice been rejected in Gwinnett, is another sign of the changing times.

“Go Gwinnett,” the new pro-transit committee formed to advocate in favor of the March 19 referendum, is also composed largely of local business people.

Kaufman, the Chamber CEO, said his organization will use Go Gwinnett’s marketing and advocacy materials to help push for approval.

“This is an inflection point for us,” Kaufman, a former educator, said. “And as you know from your eighth-grade math class, inflection points can go up or down. I think without (transit), we are going to be much less competitive.”

Early voting for Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum starts Feb. 25 at the Gwinnett County elections office in Lawrenceville. Find more information here.

WHY IT MATTERS

Business leaders say new transportation options are increasingly vital for attracting and retaining companies and their workforces. Gwinnett’s vote could determine whether or how soon metro Atlanta gets a more expansive, more regional transit system.

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