Gwinnett leader, others predict slim margin of victory for MARTA vote

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VIDEO: Learn more about metro Atlanta's bus and rail transit system in the AJC's "5 things to know" series.

Asked to forecast the outcome of Gwinnett County's looming MARTA referendum, each of the local officials participating in a lunch panel at the Atlanta Press Club on Monday predicted it would pass.

But to describe their optimism as anything more than cautious would be hyperbole.

“I don’t think it’s going to be an overwheling vote, regardless of the outcome,” said Gwinnett Commission Chair Charlotte Nash, one of four panelists. “I think this is a case where everybody’s vote is going to count, it’s going to make a difference in terms of folks that choose to go vote.”

Prompted by veteran reporter and moderator Maria Saporta, Nash predicted 52.75 percent of voters would choose 'yes' during the March 19 referendum.

MARTA CEO and general manager Jeffrey Parker predicted 53.14 percent; Atlanta Regional Commission chairman Doug Hooker, 51.5 percent; Chris Tomlinson, director of a number of local transit agencies, including the new Atlanta-region Transit Link Authority, 54 percent.

Tomlinson added that he was “going to be watching the weather.”

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Charlotte Nash, chair, Gwinnett County Commission, answers questions related to the MARTA referendum, which would extend MARTA to Gwinnett County if it passes, at the Commerce Club in Atlanta, Georgia on Monday, March 11, 2019. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

Charlotte Nash, chair, Gwinnett County Commission, answers questions related to the MARTA referendum, which would extend MARTA to Gwinnett County if it passes, at the Commerce Club in Atlanta, Georgia on Monday, March 11, 2019. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

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Charlotte Nash, chair, Gwinnett County Commission, answers questions related to the MARTA referendum, which would extend MARTA to Gwinnett County if it passes, at the Commerce Club in Atlanta, Georgia on Monday, March 11, 2019. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

Early voting is already well underway for the referendum, the passage of which would consummate Gwinnett's pending contract with MARTA and commit the county and visitors to paying a new 1 percent sales tax to help fund transit projects. Those projects would include a passenger rail extension from Doraville into the Norcross area; multiple bus rapid-transit lines, which have been likened to "light rail on rubber tires"; and other expanded bus services, as well as new park-and-ride lots and express commuter buses to the Atlanta area.

Through Sunday, more than 19,000 Gwinnett voters had cast ballots during early voting. That likely puts the referendum turnout on pace to exceed the volume for a typical special election — but who the voters are, not just how many, will likely be key to the outcome.

Polls and surveys conducted in recent years have shown that a majority of Gwinnett residents favor expanding transit options. The county was long a Republican stronghold but is one of the most diverse in the Southeast and has grown increasingly tolerant of more liberal political ideas like public transportation.

Studies, though, show that older, white voters are those most likely to vote against transit — and in Gwinnett, those folks have dominated the early voting.

Analysis by georgiavotes.com showed that, through Sunday, almost 62 percent of early Gwinnett voters were white. Just over 69 percent were 50 or older. Those statistics are actually slightly less daunting for advocates than they were prior to the weekend, which was the first with early voting at all eight voting locations.

“Right now we very much need to see younger folks wake up to the fact that there is a referendum and get to the polls,” Nash said.

She said she was surprised that those younger voters seemingly “have not recognized it’s really their future we’re voting on.”

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Jeff Parker, general manager and CEO, MARTA, left, and Chris Tomlinson, executive director, State Road & Tollway Authority (SRTA) and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA), laugh while answering questions related to the MARTA referendum, which would extend MARTA to Gwinnett County, at the Commerce Club in Atlanta, Georgia on Monday, March 11, 2019. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

Jeff Parker, general manager and CEO, MARTA, left, and Chris Tomlinson, executive director, State Road & Tollway Authority (SRTA) and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA), laugh while answering questions related to the MARTA referendum, which would extend MARTA to Gwinnett County, at the Commerce Club in Atlanta, Georgia on Monday, March 11, 2019. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

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Jeff Parker, general manager and CEO, MARTA, left, and Chris Tomlinson, executive director, State Road & Tollway Authority (SRTA) and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA), laugh while answering questions related to the MARTA referendum, which would extend MARTA to Gwinnett County, at the Commerce Club in Atlanta, Georgia on Monday, March 11, 2019. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

Multiple advocacy groups have been working to drive awareness and turnout among potential "yes" voters, canvassing neighborhoods, sending mailers and texting residents. The "Go Gwinnett" committee has won a series of big-name Republican endorsements: ex-Gov. Nathan DealGwinnett Sheriff Butch Conway, Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter and, just announced Monday, longtime Gwinnett County School Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks.

“Local revenue funds over 40 percent of the operations of Gwinnett County Public Schools, so having a robust economy is critical to ensuring we are able to attract the best teachers and provide the instructional programs our students need to be competitive,” Wilbanks’ statement said. “The county’s transportation infrastructure is a vital factor in supporting that robust economy, and it needs major relief.”

Formal opposition is limited largely to a few Facebook pages and a website run by longtime local gadfly Joe Newton. But that doesn't mean opposition doesn't exist, and its clout is magnified by the referendum being held during a lower-turnout special election rather than November's mid-term elections.

Like she has previously, Nash demurred Monday when asked about that decision, which was likely a political compromise orchestrated on behalf of local Republicans who were up for re-election in November. She called that discussion counterproductive.

Hooker, the ARC chairman, likewise said the focus should be on the present.

“I think the Gwinnett vote is probably as important now as the original MARTA vote was some 49 years ago,” he said.


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, 50 miles of "bus rapid transit" lines and other improvements.

A yes vote would also trigger a new 1 percent sales tax to help 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 has started and is being held in the Gwinnett elections office (455 Grayson Highway in Lawrenceville) and at seven satellite locations every day through March 15.

Voting hours are between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Satellite locations can be found at gwinnettcounty.com.

Election Day voting will take place at each of the county’s 156 regular voting precincts.

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.