Opinion: County looking toward next steps on transit

EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com

With three weeks of hindsight now, I appreciate the opportunity to share a few thoughts about Gwinnett’s recent transit referendum. First, I want to thank every single individual who engaged in the process in any way, especially the 92,243 individuals who cast votes. While the outcome was not what we hoped it would be, I am still thankful for their willingness to vote.

Many volunteers spent time on the campaign, on both sides of the issue, and put their opinions forward with passion. County staff and others made it as convenient as possible for voters to have access to accurate information about the proposed transit plan and about the contract that had been negotiated with MARTA. All of those involved with the campaign effort worked hard to get their messages out, and the media was attentive and thorough in its coverage. Again, I appreciate engagement by all these individuals and groups.

The referendum did not pass and we are left with our existing transportation issues and the knowledge that these issues are going to intensify over the next 25 years as we add another 500,000 residents and see business traffic increase tremendously. The need for robust transit options as a component of our transportation system grows with every day that passes. In my opinion, the question is not if, but when and how transit will expand in Gwinnett County.

During the referendum process, there were a variety of changes to the Connect Gwinnett Transit Plan suggested by County residents. Some indicated that no heavy rail should be included at all, while others wanted to see miles and miles of rail in every major corridor in the county. There were suggestions put forward that included monorail, autonomous vehicles, van pools, BRT, and expanded express bus routes.

Some voters asserted that Gwinnett should simply expand its current system and avoid contracting with MARTA. Others questioned how a Gwinnett-only transit system could serve the needs of the more than 200,000 Gwinnett residents who commute to jobs outside the county and the Gwinnett businesses that depend on almost 200,000 employees who travel from other counties to their jobs here.

From the questions and concerns that individuals expressed, it is clear that we have more work to do in effectively sharing information about the Transit Plan. We must also assess and discuss the usefulness and feasibility of potential changes to the plan that surfaced during the campaign. I anticipate that the county will create a process for vetting such proposed changes, as well as providing additional public education about the plan.

The turnout for this referendum confirms the wisdom of placing such issues on the ballot in conjunction with other issues and elections that will help ensure broad turnout. I believed the turnout for the March referendum would be much higher than what was normally seen in special elections, based on the importance of the transit issue and the level of community discussion that had been ongoing about it for many years. However, less than 17 percent of total registered voters cast a vote. I am particularly surprised that younger voters, those who stand to be affected more by worsening traffic issues, did not show up in greater numbers. The timing of the next transit referendum will be a critical decision that the Board of Commissioners as a whole must make.

Over the next few months, the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners will lay out the next steps for transit expansion because doing otherwise is not an acceptable alternative. To keep Gwinnett moving, we must determine a path forward for transit options and improvements.

Charlotte Nash is chairman of the Gwinnett County Commission.