January 11, 2019 Atlanta - (From left) Greg Cantrell, Paige Haven and Marlon Allen listen during a kickoff meeting at The Hudgens Center for Art and Learning in Duluth on Friday, January 11, 2019. Go Gwinnett, the formal pro-transit advocacy group that will be pushing for Gwinnett to approve its March referendum on joining MARTA, hold its kickoff meeting Friday. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Pro-transit group ready for ‘dogfight’ with Gwinnett MARTA referendum

Go Gwinnett — the well-connected, well-funded advocacy group pushing for passage of the county’s referendum on joining MARTA — officially kicked off its campaign Friday afternoon.

And it’s ready for a dogfight.

“This is not a shoo-in,” Paige Havens, the group’s spokeswoman, said. Expanding MARTA “seems like a no-brainer to every one of us in this room. … But (support is) sitting at about 50-50.”

IN-DEPTH: A comprehensive guide to Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum

In the weeks before Gwinnett’s March 19 referendum — which will ask voters if they want to join the MARTA system and pay new 1 percent sales tax to cover the cost of dramatic transit expansions — organization members will hold forums, go canvassing and advertise to make their pitch.

The group also has a website that’s now live at gogwinnett.org.

They’re expecting the price tag for their efforts to enter seven-figure territory. And they say it’s worth it.

“I think this is the most important issue in our region for the next 30 years,” said Brian Robinson, a former spokesman for outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal.

Robinson is part of a bipartisan group of political consultants that will help guide the efforts of Go Gwinnett, which is co-chaired by businessmen Marlon Allen and Greg Cantrell.

Their pitch is pretty straightforward: Now is the time to get on board with transit.

The logo for “Go Gwinnett,” a pro-transit advocacy group formed ahead of Gwinnett’s March 19 referendum on joining MARTA. SPECIAL PHOTO
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Gwinnett is a county that’s rapidly approaching 1 million people and projected to add 500,000 or more over the next 20-plus years. It’s a county that has put billions into a road system that remains clogged. And it’s a county that’s in an uphill battle for economic development if it has no mass transit.

Advocates see a pending contract with MARTA that would give Gwinnett far more control over finances than other member counties, and a plan for transit expansion that is comprehensive and feasible.

In addition to a heavy rail extension from Doraville to the I-85/Jimmy Carter Boulevard area near Norcross, the $5.5 billion plan suggests greatly expanded local bus service; several bus rapid transit (BRT) lines, which make fewer stops than local service and generally operate in dedicated lanes; and several new park-and-ride lots and express bus routes.

“It’s hard to argue when you truly know the facts,” Havens said.

Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson, another member of the consulting team, said the basic campaign strategy will be three-pronged:

  • “Educate people, and give them the facts very, very early.”
  • Leave no corner of Gwinnett unturned, geographically or demographically.
  • Work harder “than anyone who may or may not oppose this.”

Thus far, no formal opposition to the referendum has emerged. But some advocates have expressed fears that it could ultimately emerge — perhaps in the form of a group like Americans for Prosperity, which is backed by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch and has fought other transit referendums around the country.

January 11, 2019 Atlanta - Marlon Allen speaks during a kickoff meeting at The Hudgens Center for Art and Learning in Duluth on Friday, January 11, 2019. Go Gwinnett, the formal pro-transit advocacy group that will be pushing for Gwinnett to approve its March referendum on joining MARTA, hold its kickoff meeting Friday. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Democrats are not universally pro-transit, and Republicans are not universally against it.

Still, turnout will be key.

In October, one poll of likely voters suggested about 44 percent would vote no on the referendum and 40 would vote yes — and 15 percent were still undecided. Other polls and surveys conducted by Gwinnett County and the Atlanta Regional Commission suggest a majority of residents have both the appetite for transit and the willingness to pay an extra sales tax for it.

MORE COVERAGE: MARTA CEO calls for $100 billion transit ‘moonshot’

Some polls, though, also suggested Gwinnett’s last MARTA vote would pass. That 1990 referendum was trounced, with nearly 70 percent of voters choosing no.

Gwinnett has changed tremendously since 1990, adding more than 600,000 new residents, becoming a majority-minority county and leaning increasingly left.

Democrat Stacey Abrams bested eventual Gov.-elect Brian Kemp by 14 points in Gwinnett, and Dems have fared well in other recent countywide contests. Democratic candidates for secretary of state and the Public Service Commission took Gwinnett in a December runoff election, which had only about 19 percent turnout in Gwinnett.

Those low-turnout results could be a positive sign for advocates ahead of the county’s stand-alone MARTA referendum, which will undoubtedly have far lighter participation than if it had been added to November’s general election ballots. But the pro-transit group knows its chances are better with higher turnout.

“If everybody in Gwinnett County went and voted, everybody, this would pass overwhelmingly,” said Robinson, the political consultant. “This is a special election where a county with a million people may have 35,000 people turn out. That’s the most dangerous because you’re having the ideologically driven, hardcore voters turn out. And it benefits no one. We’ve got to have a big turnout.”

GWINNETT’S MARTA REFERENDUM

When: Election Day is March 19. An early voting schedule has not yet been set.

What it means: An affirmative vote would ratify Gwinnett’s contract with MARTA and enact a new 1 percent sales tax for transit in the county until 2057.

The contract: The pending contract between Gwinnett and MARTA would dedicate billions of new sales tax dollars over nearly four decades to fund transit projects. Twenty-nine percent of the funds collected in the early years of the contract would go to fund expansion of a MARTA bus system in Gwinnett and to cover maintenance and operation of the overall MARTA system.

Gwinnett, which will receive and have control over all of the funds, would use the rest to pay MARTA for other projects and obligations as needed.

The projects: Projects are expected to track the county’s new transit plan, which includes recommendations to build a heavy rail connection from the existing Doraville MARTA station to a new “multimodal hub” near Jimmy Carter Boulevard and I-85. Longer-term plans suggest possibly extending rail all the way to Gwinnett Place Mall.

Other recommendation include a major expansion of local bus service; several bus rapid transit (BRT) lines, which make fewer stops than local service and generally operate in dedicated lanes; several new park-and-ride lots and express bus routes are also suggested.

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