Again and again in recent weeks, at open houses and community meetings and town hall gatherings, Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash has preached the gospel of MARTA in Gwinnett.
And on Wednesday, five days before early voting begins in that referendum, Nash did it again — this time as part of her annual state of the county address, over a fancy lunch in a fancy ballroom in front of hundreds of county leaders.
“Let me be clear,” Nash said. “I do not claim that our transit plan and contract are perfect. However, I believe that both are very good and we cannot afford to delay while we search for perfection.”
The decision that voters will face about joining MARTA is Gwinnett’s next big one, the Republican leader said, a fateful choice that’s akin to visionary decisions of yesteryear to create the sprawling water and sewer systems that enabled the county’s exponential growth.
Roads alone, Nash said, are not enough. And they will not be enough as that growth continues, as the county of nearly 1 million people welcomes another 500,000 or so in the coming decades.
Transit, she said, will give Gwinnett “the final competitive edge it needs.” She got a standing ovation.
“We know changes are coming, but we do not have the luxury to sit still now to wait for those changes to occur,” Nash said. “We have to get moving in order for Gwinnett to be able to keep moving in the future.”
Nash touched on other county issues during her 22-minute speech, but transit was the focus.
If Gwinnett’s March 19 referendum passes, Gwinnett’s pending contract with MARTA would be ratified. Residents and visitors to the county would pay an additional 1 percent sales tax, effective April 1.
That tax would help pay for a dramatic transit expansion, including a roughly four-mile rail extension from MARTA’s Doraville station to a new multimodal hub near Norcross. The $5.5 billion plan also includes around 50 miles of bus rapid transit lines (which operate in dedicated lanes and are often likened to “light rail on rubber tires”); other “rapid bus” connections in the county; a number of new park-and-rides and express routes; and a much larger traditional local bus network.
Nash’s speech largely laid out all of those things, while also touting the amount of financial control the MARTA contract gives Gwinnett and the flexibility it allows as time and technology progress.
Both have been questions raised by detractors.
“Gwinnett has always been a leader in this region and in this state,” said Michael Paris, the president and CEO of the Council for Quality Growth, one of the sponsors of Nash’s speech. “If we miss this opportunity, it won’t come around soon.”
No formal opposition has emerged to the referendum, and the county has seen dramatic changes along demographic and political lines in recent years, let alone since the last time it voted on joining MARTA in 1990. But the special election is likely to be decided by a slim margin.
Chuck Warbington, Lawrenceville’s city manager and a longtime transit advocate, praised Nash’s speech and the comparison to decisions years ago about water and sewer.
“That is what we have on the table,” Warbington said. “And I think she made that very, very clear.”
Former Republican state Rep. Buzz Brockway — who again shot down talk about a possible run for Georgia’s 7th Congressional District — was also at the speech. The Lawrenceville resident said he still wasn’t sure how he was voting on the MARTA referendum but had high praise for Nash.
”You just get around her and you feel confidence because of her competence,” Brockway said. “I think that she’s negotiated a very good deal, and I know there’s a lot of opinions on it. But I think she’s negotiated about as good of a deal as Gwinnett would get on it.”
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