The AJC held a community conversation about the proposed expansion of MARTA in Gwinnett County.

Gwinnett voters, AJC panel consider MARTA referendum questions

As voters continue to cast ballots in Gwinnett County’s MARTA referendum, the outcome looms large for both Gwinnett residents and those elsewhere in metro Atlanta.

With only three days left in early voting, and voting day on March 19 still to come, about 35 county residents who are also subscribers to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution gathered at Gwinnett Technical College on Tuesday evening to hear key players discuss the referendum.

READ | How would MARTA in Gwinnett affect your neighborhood? Here’s the plan

MORE | Turnout continues to increase for Gwinnett MARTA vote

Some voters who spoke were distrustful of MARTA and didn’t want to be taxed for a system they did not believe would be significantly utilized. Others were cautiously optimistic, but curious how MARTA would fill in the blanks from homes to transit stations or if more heavy rail would be possible.

How they vote will be closely watched around the region. Gwinnett County’s MARTA decision could boost momentum for transit expansion in other counties across metro Atlanta. Or it could sidetrack those efforts for years to come. The referendum’s outcome is expected to provide a glimpse of a changing attitude toward MARTA and public transit — a traditionally hard sell outside Fulton and DeKalb counties where the state’s largest transit agency operates. Cobb County officials are aiming to hold a transit referendum in 2022, but no concrete plans have been approved.

Panelist and Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners Chairman Charlotte Nash can’t advocate for the referendum, but she said the transit plan was created to accommodate the county’s projected future growth and future technologies.

“The community is going to change and technology is going to change and that’s why the plan has been built with flexibility,” Nash said.

Panelists and Republican strategists Julianne Thompson and Mark Rountree both said they were “pro-transit,” but not in favor of the plan in part due to the heavy rail aspect. Rountree said an alternative solution could be buying autonomous cars for public use.

“I have always been for heavy rail myself, I have always been for light rail, but my position is changing because technology is changing,” Rountree said.

If voters approve it, the transit plan between Gwinnett and MARTA would span 30 years and includes a heavy rail connection to MARTA’s Gold Line with a station in Norcross. Bus service would add rapid bus and bus rapid transit and serve riders in most parts of Gwinnett. Current bus routes reach Lawrenceville and the southwest part of the county.

Thompson suggested that if heavy rail was taken out of the plan, Gwinnett County could implement the rest of the plan on its own and thus avoid sending Gwinnett taxpayer funds to MARTA.

Susie Murray, 58, of Suwanee, grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., regularly using the Washington Metro. She said she would welcome a similar system connecting Gwinnett to the rest of metro Atlanta.

“If we could get that up here, that would be great,” Murray said. “As it stands now, it’s difficult to find a place to park when you want to take the train, and you have to make a 30-minute drive for another 30-minute train ride.”

Pro-transit groups have organized get-out-the-vote efforts — among the groups are Go Gwinnett, which has close ties to the business community, and the state and county Democratic parties. There are no formal opposition groups, but some voters still have concerns leading them to cast “no” ballots. The 1 percent sales tax that would come with the referendum’s passage is a deterrent for many.

Dahlys Hamilton, 64, of Duluth said she is also worried that MARTA in Gwinnett would hike the cost of living for homeowners like herself, and her daughter, who rents an apartment in the county.

“I don’t want to pay more sales tax,” Hamilton said. “Nobody’s going to ride this thing for years and years.”

It is a 1-cent sales tax referendum.