Gwinnett County residents must decide whether to join MARTA and approve a 1-cent sales tax for transit expansion. A “yes” vote could boost momentum for transit expansion across the region. A “no” vote could slam on the brakes. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Hit the brakes on transit expansion? Gwinnett voters to decide

Gwinnett County’s $5.5 billion transit referendum could transform commuting for some residents accustomed to bumper-to-bumper traffic, expanding bus service and bringing MARTA rail across the county line from Doraville.

But the March 19 vote on whether to expand transit and join MARTA could have repercussions far beyond Gwinnett.

Connecting the region’s second-largest county to its primary transit system could make it easier to travel across a broad swath of metro Atlanta – with fewer transfers, a single payment system and other benefits. And a “yes” vote could build momentum for a MARTA expansion into Cobb County and elsewhere.

A “no” vote could slow the momentum for transit expansion across the region. That would either be tragic or prudent, depending on who you ask.

Transit supporters say more roads alone won’t solve metro Atlanta’s world-class traffic mess. They say the region needs to diversify its transportation network to keep people moving. And they say transit is necessary for Gwinnett and the region to remain economically competitive.

“The parts of the region that will continue to prosper and continue to grow and continue to have economic opportunity over the next two decades are the parts that are connected to transit,” MARTA Board member Robbie Ashe said at a recent forum on the referendum.

Transit skeptics say MARTA is poorly run and can’t be trusted to operate Gwinnett’s transit system. They say ride-sharing, autonomous vehicles and other developing technologies are better options than expanding MARTA rail.

“I’m not anti-transit,” said state Rep. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville, who has already cast a “no” vote. “But I want to spend our money as wisely as possible.”

With the stakes high, everyone from former Gov. Nathan Deal to the county sheriff is weighing in. Now it’s up to Gwinnett voters to decide whether metro Atlanta’s transit expansion picks up steam or slams on the brakes.

Transit gains momentum

Not so long ago, the prospect of MARTA expanding deeper into the suburbs would have seemed laughable. Voters in Gwinnett, Cobb and Clayton counties rejected the regional transit agency decades ago, and public transportation remained a hot-button political issue long after MARTA completed its last rail line to North Springs in 2000.

But demographic changes and economic development concerns have upended the politics of transit in the suburbs.

Gwinnett has added hundreds of thousands of residents since its voters last rejected MARTA in 1990 – many of them minorities and others who polls show are more supportive of public transportation. Cobb has followed a similar political trajectory.

Meanwhile, support for transit expansion has picked up steam. In 2014, Clayton County voters agreed to join MARTA. Two years later, Atlanta voters approved a $2.7 billion transit expansion plan.

Last year the Republican-controlled General Assembly – long hostile to MARTA – approved legislation that could pave the way for transit expansion in 13 metro Atlanta counties. Economic development concerns were a key factor.

In his recent endorsement of the Gwinnett MARTA referendum, Deal said one of the top questions CEOs asked him as they considered building facilities in metro Atlanta was “do you have transit?”

Gwinnett’s business leaders have echoed those concerns.

“When you look at high-performing, growing communities around the country, and around the world frankly, they have transportation alternatives. And we don’t,” said Gwinnett Chamber CEO Dan Kaufman. “If we’re going to be an attractive community for businesses that have options [about where to locate], we’ve got to have some transportation alternatives.”

A key aim of the law is to encourage consolidation of the region’s transit services. Currently, MARTA serves Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties, while other counties operate their own services. The law seeks to create a seamless system that would make it easier to travel across county lines.

Though it allows any metro Atlanta county to raise sales taxes to expand transit, most have no plans to expand transit any time soon.

Henry County Chairwoman June Wood, for example, said her county is developing a transportation plan that will include a transit feasibility study. And Forsyth County Commissioner Todd Levent said his county would welcome the bus rapid transit service that may come with express lanes on Ga. 400.

But neither thought the Gwinnett referendum would affect their plans.

“We are definitely paying attention,” Wood said, but added, “I don’t necessarily think it would slow the momentum [if the Gwinnett referendum fails]. We have to address our needs.”

But the Gwinnett measure may have bigger repercussions for some counties. The state law includes provisions encouraging Gwinnett and Cobb to join MARTA – creating a single transit system serving the heart of the region.

“If it passes [in Gwinnett], it puts immense pressure on Cobb,” said state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, who helped draft the legislation.

Indeed, CobbDeKalb and Fulton counties all are developing transit expansion plans. And their leaders are watching to see what happens in Gwinnett.

Fulton Chairman Robb Pitts said the outcome in Gwinnett may determine how quickly political leaders in his county push for their own referendum.

“If it fails, we’ll all have to come together and regroup,” Pitts said.

Cobb Chairman Mike Boyce said a successful transit referendum in Gwinnett could buoy his county’s efforts.

“In an area that has been opposed to transit, it says that story line is changing,” Boyce said.

And if it fails?

“It certainly makes my job harder,” he said.

The final word?

A failed Gwinnett referendum would be just fine with Larry Savage, a Cobb resident and former candidate for Boyce’s job. He believes ride sharing and autonomous vehicles would be better investments than traditional public transportation. And he thinks a defeat for transit Gwinnett could bode well for Cobb.

“The powers that be are no doubt biting their fingers down to the bone,” Savage said.

WSB/Rosetta Stone poll released Wednesday gives transit supporters reason to fret. It shows 39 percent of regular Gwinnett voters support the referendum, while 51.4 percent oppose it and nearly 10 percent are undecided.

A defeat on March 19 may not be the final word. Gwinnett Chairwoman Charlotte Nash has already indicated the county might put the transit measure to another vote, if necessary.

But transit supporters hope it doesn’t come to that. They say a successful Gwinnett referendum would be a big win for the entire region.

“This is an economic development issue. It’s a quality of life issue,” Beach said. “It’s important to keep the momentum going.”

Staff writer Arielle Kass contributed to this report

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