Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway (left) and District Attorney Danny Porter have both endorsed Gwinnett's upcoming MARTA referendum. FILE PHOTOS

Gwinnett’s sheriff and DA, both Republicans, endorse MARTA referendum

Two of Gwinnetts longest-serving Republican elected officials — and two of its most powerful law enforcement leaders — are putting their support behind the county’s MARTA referendum

Sheriff Butch Conway and District Attorney Danny Porter, both of whom have been in office since the 1990s, join former Gov. Nathan Deal as high-profile Republicans who have now urged Gwinnett residents to vote yes during the March 19 special election. 

COMPLETE COVERAGE: The AJC’s comprehensive Gwinnett MARTA voter’s guide

MORE: Gwinnett and MARTA: Clearing up frequently asked financial questions

In endorsements released via the pro-transit ballot committee “Go Gwinnett,” Conway and Porter each suggested that passage of the referendum — which would ratify Gwinnett’s pending contract with MARTA and levy a new 1 percent sales tax to pay for new transit projects — would help with public safety.

Said Conway: “As our county’s population has grown, so too have the challenges facing the fantastic first responders who serve us every day. Congested roads lead to more wrecks, more traffic fatalities and longer response times for emergency personnel to arrive on the scene.”

Said Porter: “Gwinnett officials — directly responsible to the people of this county — will determine how the transit system works in our county, and they will have flexibility to meet the changing needs of their constituents. I trust our locally elected officials to implement this transit plan in a way that maximizes mobility while still prioritizing public safety.”

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Most if not all of the Democrats representing Gwinnett in various capacities have long endorsed passage of the referendum, early voting for which is now in Week 2. But until recently the effort had been lacking support from high-profile Republicans outside of county Commission Chair Charlotte Nash. 

Deal changed that with his endorsement last week

The issue is not divided strictly along party lines, but more conservative voters are generally more inclined to reject public transportation. And while Gwinnett voters have shown an increased penchant for liberal political positions — Democrats now have two spots on the county commission and a majority of the county’s delegation to the state legislature —  Republican endorsements could have an outsized impact in a special election that may see 30 percent turnout at best. 

Polls and analyses have shown that older, more conservative voters are the ones who most reliably head to the polls. 

And while Gwinnett’s referendum has collected more public support in recent days, not all Republican leaders fall into the pro-MARTA camp. 

A historic vote is underway in Gwinnett County and it could change the way many of you get around.

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, told The AJC last month that she wasn’t taking a stance but, prodded further, said the new 1 percent sales tax would be a “regressive” one, meaning it would have a larger proportional impact on poor people. And she said she wasn’t sure it would truly serve her district on the northeastern side of the county.

“The people in my area are more interested in, not in transit but in commuting. … so they’re interested in roads, signalization, moving people,” Unterman said. “And, you know, I guess the question is, if you’re taking some people off the roads [with high-capacity transit options], does that allow the people in the north end to have more access? And I’m not sure it does.”

Then there’s state Rep. Brett Harrell, who announced via a recent newsletter that he had already voted no. He argued against spending more than $1 billion on a passenger rail extension from the Doraville MARTA station into the Norcross area.

“I believe that $1 billion is better invested in Gwinnett via projects that may be delivered in half the time, at half the cost, actually improve mobility, provide flexibility, and respond to our future needs,” he wrote.

In addition to the rail extension, the $5.5 billion plan that would guide Gwinnett projects should the referendum pass includes  about 50 miles of bus rapid transit routes, which operated in dedicated lanes; and another 110 miles of “rapid bus” routes, which often operate in mixed traffic but have “queue jumpers” and other devices aimed at speedin up travel.

The plan also includes eight new park-and-ride lots and greatly expanded local bus service. 

Early voting in the March 19 referendum started last week and continues until March 15. In addition to the county elections office at 455 Grayson Highway in Lawrenceville, residents can vote at seven satellite polling locations between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. every day.

Those locations are as follows: 

  • Bogan Park Community Recreation Center, 2723 North Bogan Road, Buford, GA 30518
  • Dacula Park Activity Building , 2735 Old Auburn Road, Dacula, GA 30019
  • George Pierce Park Community Recreation Center, 55 Buford Highway, Suwanee, GA 30024
  • Lenora Park Activity Room, 4515 Lenora Church Road, Snellville, GA 30078
  • Lucky Shoals Park Community Recreation Center, 4651 Britt Road, Norcross, GA 30093
  • Mountain Park Activity Building, 1063 Rockbridge Road, Stone Mountain, GA 30087
  • Shorty Howell Park Community Recreation Center, 2750 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth, GA 30096

ENDORSEMENT FROM DISTRICT ATTORNEY DANNY PORTER

“A ‘yes’ vote will connect Gwinnett to the rest of the metro Atlanta region, while at the same time letting the county retain local control over transit projects and services – services that include public safety. Gwinnett officials – directly responsible to the people of this county – will determine how the transit system works in our county, and they will have flexibility to meet the changing needs of their constituents. I trust our locally elected officials to implement this transit plan in a way that maximizes mobility while still prioritizing public safety.”

“Beyond my role as a prosecutor, I also live here. This county has given my family a remarkable quality of life. As more people come into our county to enjoy all the assets of this community, we’re going to need new capacity to build on the success we’ve seen for many decades. This well thought out plan will relieve congestion, save us time and energy and boost our economy. Please vote yes.”

ENDORSEMENT FROM SHERIFF BUTCH CONWAY

“The much-needed transit expansion will take thousands of vehicles off our roads every day, which will lead to fewer wrecks, fewer traffic jams and fewer fatalities,” said Conway. “Studies clearly show that an increase in transit ridership increases road safety. We know we can make a huge difference in Gwinnett, because even the more limited bus service that is provided today makes a big difference – Gwinnett buses comprise 29 percent of the passengers in the I-85 HOT lanes but only 2 percent of the vehicles.

“As our county’s population has grown, so to have the challenges facing the fantastic first responders who serve us every day. Congested roads lead to more wrecks, more traffic fatalities and longer response times for emergency personnel to arrive on the scene. The transit plan we have before us will provide robust transportation options that will serve every part of the county, just like the Sheriff’s Department does.”

Conway noted that MARTA is one of only three transit agencies to earn the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s top security certification.

“I’ve devoted my life to promoting the safety of Gwinnett’s families, and that’s one of many reasons I’m voting yes on the transit referendum on March 19,” Conway said. “I hope my friends and neighbors here will join me in doing the right thing for Gwinnett’s future.”

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