A poster explaining the ballot question for Gwinnett County’s upcoming MARTA referendum. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM

The first whiff of organized MARTA opposition emerges in Gwinnett

It remains to be seen just how organized — and how formidable — the resistance may be.

But the first whiff of a formal opposition to Gwinnett County’s MARTA push has emerged.

“We’re going to fight this tooth-and-nail,” Dacula resident Michael Miller said Tuesday night.

Miller was one of about two dozen members of the public to attend an open house at Bogan Park in Buford, the first in a series of county-sponsored events meant to educate voters about Gwinnett’s March 19 referendum on joining MARTA. Miller spent several minutes angrily drilling Gwinnett’s transportation director about specifics of the vote and the corresponding transit plan.

He then told reporters that he was part of the team behind a burgeoning anti-transit movement.

Gwinnett County is rapidly changing both demographically and politically — but it’s had a history as a longtime Republican stronghold with a distrust of mass transit. The county voted against joining MARTA in the 1970s and again in 1990. It also joined other metro Atlanta communities in spiking a regional T-SPLOST in 2012.

Miller’s statements Tuesday, though, marked the first public suggestion that a formal opposition group may be formed.

And while several recent polls and surveys have suggested that Gwinnett residents have both an appetite for transit and a willingness to pay for it, even the most optimistic pro-transit folks admit that the referendum will likely be a tight one.

A formal opposition group could play a significant role in swaying undecided voters and driving turnout. The latter will be a crucial factor in the stand-alone election.

Miller described his still-unnamed group as a grassroots movement formed via social media platforms like NextDoor and Facebook. He said a few hundred folks have expressed support. They’re gathering funding for bumper stickers and yard signs and more, he said.

His main issue with MARTA and transit expansion in general is financial. He said that northern and eastern Gwinnett in particular were getting the raw end of the deal — paying new taxes to fund expansions that, in his view, largely benefit the other end of the county.

“I don’t want to pay any more taxes than I’m already paying,” Miller said.

If more than half of Gwinnett voters who go to the polls for the special election cast “yes” ballots, the county’s pending contract with MARTA will be ratified and a new 1 percent sales tax will be levied until 2057 to pay for transit projects.

Those projects will come from Gwinnett’s $5.5 billion, 30-year transit plan. The possibilities include a heavy rail extension from Doraville to a new multimodal hub in the Norcross area, as well as greatly expanded local bus service; a significant network of “bus rapid transit” lines, which operate in dedicated lanes and are comparable to light rail; and several new park-and-rides and express routes to the Atlanta area.

The long-term possibility of rail being extended all the way to the Gwinnett Place Mall area also has not been ruled out.

Gwinnett and county officials cannot spend taxpayer resources advocating one way or another on a referendum; but the county can hold “education sessions” like the one Tuesday night to provide information to the public on the issues at stake.

Additional open houses will be held this week in the Berkeley Lake and Stone Mountain areas, and several more will be held across the county in the weeks before the election.

“We want to cover the entire county,” Alan Chapman, the county’s transportation director, said. “There are different types of improvements for different parts of the county. And there may be different opinions as well.”

That was apparent Tuesday in Buford, where several of the small number of residents who turned out were more skeptical than optimistic.

Miller said he’s “going to have people already voting against this thing” when advance in-person voting starts on Feb. 25.

Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash is largely responsible for making the referendum possible. Asked about the possibility of a formal opposition, she said that “every voter has an opportunity to officially register his or her opinion by voting.”

“I encourage everyone to take the time to learn about Gwinnett’s transit plan and the contract with MARTA in preparation for voting,” she said.

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