Gwinnett voters are in favor of expanding MARTA to the county, according to a new poll released Thursday by the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. But the county’s top elected official said she doesn’t see a need to vote on the issue anytime soon.
“From my perspective, I do not believe a MARTA referendum will pass,” said Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash. “It’s such a divisive issue. I’m not ready to say we’re going to tear this community apart by calling a referendum on that.”
Nash said she didn’t see the desire for transit “shifting in the foreseeable future.” Residents last rejected MARTA expansion in 1990 by a 70-to-30 margin, though more recent straw polls have shown that opposition softening. Since then, Clayton County has voted to join the system, and new bus service there began late last month.
In the Chamber study, 63 percent of likely voters said they were in favor of expanding MARTA into Gwinnett, while 50 percent said they were willing to pay a 1 percent sales tax to fund it. Half said they had a favorable view of MARTA, while a third of likely voters said they were dissatisfied with the county’s current public transportation options.
Indeed, the county’s lackluster public transportation has come up several times in recent months. At a town hall meeting in March, residents asked for commuter rail and better bus service. Later that month, the CEO of Norcross-based RockTenn said better access to rail would help development in the county.
“It’s important, and I think it’s really important for Gwinnett,” RockTenn CEO Steven Voorhees told a group of local business leaders at the Chamber’s Movers & Makers awards.
Dan Kaufman, the Chamber’s president and CEO, said he was not taking a stand on whether his organization should back a potential expansion. But he did note that support for more transit stretched across the county, and said the results surprised him.
As the county chases millennials and tries to broaden its economic base, he said, it is important to have “a comprehensive conversation about who we want to be and how we get there.” MARTA, he said, is part of a varied transportation approach that “supports our vision for the community.”
“We’re at an inflection point,” Kaufman said. “I would say it’s time for us to look ahead. Having a plan makes a lot of difference.”
Kaufman said his intent in conducting the study was to have a recent snapshot of local views on MARTA expansion disconnected from the regional transportation sales tax vote that failed in 2012.
The numbers show a growing support for alternative forms of transportation, said Chuck Warbington, executive director of the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District. Warbington said he thinks the county should have a series of community discussions about what transportation needs there may be.
“It’s a marathon instead of a sprint,” he said. “If we try to sprint, we will not get the best situation for the future.”
When the question goes from a generic inquiry about MARTA to a defined project, Warbington said, he expects support to increase.
The expansion of MARTA could help the county’s convention and entertainment industries, said Lisa Anders, the executive director of Explore Gwinnett. Now, it is difficult to get to the county from the airport without renting a car, and landing some groups is a challenge because of the lack of connectivity.
“Public transportation needs to be in our future,” she said. “It’s awesome that the conversation is getting louder.”
Maureen Kornowa, who lives on the line between Dacula and Buford, said she is unlikely to use public transportation, personally. But in her job as the executive director of the Gwinnett Children’s Shelter, she sees why it would be useful to have in the county.
As more people in the suburbs are homeless or live below the poverty line, she said, there is more of a need for transportation alternatives. Many cannot afford their own cars, and access to public transportation gives them more opportunities to find jobs.
Transit comes with growth and progress, Kornowa said. But she added she has some neighbors who wouldn’t want to see commuter buses going through their neighborhoods.
Linda Friedlander, who lives in Lawrenceville, said she would want to know more about the level of support for MARTA before any money was spent on an expansion, but that she would be willing to pay an extra penny in sales tax for it.
Nash, the county chairman, said a poll does not convince her of the true level of support. Surveys that show even broad-based support cannot account for how vocal and convincing people who are actively opposed to an issue can be, she said. In the Chamber study, 41 percent of Republicans, 29 percent of Independents and 8 percent of Democrats said they were opposed to expansion.
The opposition to a 1 percent sales tax was higher, with 63 percent of Republicans, 46 percent of Independents and 17 percent of Democrats against it. For the poll, 502 likely voters were questioned. There’s a 4.4 percent margin of error.
Nash said instead of looking to expand MARTA, the county would be best served by asking broad questions about transportation.
“Instead of focusing on one mode or another, we should talk transportation need and mobility issues,” she said. “We really need to focus on the overall discussion.”
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