“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, Cobb, DeKalb 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.
A 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
Why it matters
Gwinnett County’s MARTA referendum could boost momentum for transit expansion across metro Atlanta. Or it could sidetrack those efforts for years to come.
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.
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 and an extensive bus system with diverse options.
A yes vote would also trigger a new 1 percent sales tax to 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 begun at several satellite locations. Those can be found here. Hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.