Gwinnett’s failed MARTA vote offers lessons for regional transit plans

Charlotte Nash (left), Chairman of the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners, reacts after she found out Gwinnett County’s MARTA referendum failed during an election night watch party. Metro Atlanta officials say the failure shouldn’t deter other counties from expanding transit. But they draw different lessons from the Gwinnett results. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Charlotte Nash (left), Chairman of the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners, reacts after she found out Gwinnett County’s MARTA referendum failed during an election night watch party. Metro Atlanta officials say the failure shouldn’t deter other counties from expanding transit. But they draw different lessons from the Gwinnett results. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Metro Atlanta political leaders say the failure of Gwinnett County's MARTA referendum should not deter other communities from moving ahead with their own transit expansion plans.

But they have drawn different lessons from a failure that some transit advocates fear could slow momentum for transit expansion across the region.

Some say Gwinnett should try again during a general election, when more transit supporters may turn out to vote. Others say MARTA needs to improve its image among distrustful residents before another referendum.

Still others say the agency should focus on improving service for city residents who want more transit, rather than courting reluctant suburbanites.

Transit skeptics reach different conclusions, saying it’s time to set aside plans to expand heavy rail lines and embrace other methods to address the region’s traffic problems.

The stakes are high as other communities – including Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb counties – consider similar transit expansion initiatives. Elected officials and others say learning the right lessons from Gwinnett's failed referendum will be crucial as metro Atlanta tries to address traffic congestion and compete for good jobs.

“As a region, we must provide more options for getting around town beyond driving alone in a car if we are to improve quality of life and remain economically competitive,” said Doug Hooker executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

On Tuesday Gwinnett voters rejected the multibillion-dollar transit plan that would have extended MARTA rail to Norcross, launched new commuter bus lines and expanded local bus service. The measure also would have turned the county’s transit system over to MARTA.

Transit advocates had counted on Gwinnett's changing demographics and growing embrace of transit to carry the measure. But it failed by a decisive margin.

Advocates were quick to blame the timing of the referendum – it was held during a March special election, instead of last November's general election, as originally planned. Many believe it would have passed easily in a high-turnout general election.

Democrats have accused the Republican-led County Commission of rescheduling the transit referendum to discourage Democrats from showing up to vote last November.

“This is not the failure of Gwinnett voters, but Gwinnett County commissioners who politicized the process by requiring a special election in March as opposed to the November 2018 general election,” the county’s Democratic-led state legislative delegation said in a statement this week.

Republican Charlotte Nash, Gwinnett’s commission chairman and its most ardent transit champion, has defended the decision to hold the recent referendum during a special election.

But she’s also expressed her desire to call for another vote in the near future. She has not floated a potential date but suggested it would be during a “big election.”

“I would have loved to have had 50 or 60 percent of the voters vote if not more,” Nash said. “That’s certainly one of the things we’re rolling around in our minds about it.”

Distrust of MARTA a factor

While others fixated on the election date, DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond cited a more fundamental reason for the Gwinnett referendum's failure – lingering distrust of MARTA.

Thurmond said a portion of the electorate believes MARTA will not deliver on its promises. And he said that distrust isn't limited to conservative white residents in Gwinnett. He said African Americans in south DeKalb and elsewhere also are skeptical.

“MARTA’s reputation, real or imagined, continues to be an obstacle, at least as it relates to expansion,” Thurmond said. “I think that’s true for Gwinnett or Cobb or any other county that might think about it in the future.”

Count Jim Wehner, 76, as among the many in Gwinnett who are not fans of the transit agency. He voted “no” at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lilburn on Tuesday.

“All we’re doing is becoming a money cow for MARTA,” he said.

Others drew different conclusions. The group Beltline Rail Now – which supports transit along the Atlanta Beltline – expressed disappointment in the outcome in the Gwinnett referendum. But the group said it’s an opportunity for MARTA to refocus on central city residents who actually want transit.

“New people are already pouring into Atlanta, and we need a way to get around town that doesn’t leave us wasting valuable time in gridlock,” said BeltLine Rail Now co-founder Cathy Woolard. “Let’s build transit that will get people moving and show others why they want to be part of it.”

MARTA Board member Robbie Ashe said the agency can enhance service for existing customers while expanding its service area.

‘We have to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Ashe said.

In fact, Ashe believes the best way to convince skeptical suburbanites of MARTA’s merits is to deliver quality services in its existing service area.

“We don’t think we’re perfect, and we have ways we can improve,” he said.

Meanwhile, transit skeptic Lance Lamberton, chairman of the Cobb County Taxpayers Association, thinks metro Atlanta leaders are drawing the wrong lessons from Gwinnett’s failed ballot measure. He bristled at the idea of yet another referendum, when Gwinnett and Cobb voters have sent clear signals that they’re not interested in joining MARTA.

“The frustrating thing for me, we can defeat them over and over again and they keep coming back,” he said. “All they have to do is win once, and game over.”

Instead of “manipulating the process to get the result they want,” Lamberton said metro Atlanta officials should “respect the wishes of the voters and look for other ways to address transit and traffic problems.”

Gwinnett Democrats noted that just 17 percent of eligible voters decided the referendum - not necessarily representative of what county residents as a whole want.

“Yesterday’s off-cycle vote on MARTA was not a real referendum on MARTA,” said Bianca Keaton, chairwoman of the Gwinnett Democratic Party. “Rather, it was an exercise in fighting a textbook case of voter suppression. One in which Republican leaders unnecessarily spent $770,000 in taxpayer funds to hold a separate election outside of the November election cycle.”

He's a fan of the network of toll lanes under construction across the region. And he thinks expanding bus service – rather than rail – makes sense.

Of course, expanded bus service – including more commuter buses to operate in those toll lanes – was a big part of the Gwinnett plan voters just rejected.

Other counties watching

Among those trying to learn from Gwinnett’s failure are the chairmen of three counties that are developing their own transit expansion plans.

Two of those counties – Fulton and DeKalb – area already served by MARTA. DeKalb’s Thurmond and Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts said they’re moving ahead with their plans.

“Fulton is different from Gwinnett County,” Pitts said. “We know public transportation. We supported public transportation for more than 40 years.”

Cobb County is different from Fulton. Like Gwinnett, its voters have rejected MARTA in the past, and it operates its own transit system. Also like Gwinnett, its politics and demographics are changing, leading some to believe voters would approve a transit expansion plan – possibly one that involves joining MARTA.

But County Commission Chairman Mike Boyce would prefer a referendum that combined road construction and transit, rather than a transit-only measure.

“I don’t see it being just transit,” he said. “We have other needs here.”

Like Gwinnett, Cobb has spent plenty of time gathering public input as it develops its plans. Unlike Gwinnett, Boyce hopes the result will be a successful referendum.

“As long as it makes sense to them, they’ll support you,” Boyce said. “But you have to give it enough time.

“I do not want to take something to a referendum,” he said, “unless I think there’s public support for it.”

Staff writers Amanda Coyne and Arielle Kass contributed to this report