In Gwinnett, light rail a 'polarizing project'

If metro Atlanta leaders want Gwinnett County’s vote for an $8 billion transportation referendum next year, they’ll have to manage the tricky task of pleasing both Jack Skidmore and Art Sheldon.

Skidmore is ready to raise taxes to pay for any and all road projects, but he thinks mass transit is too expensive.

Sheldon thinks it makes more sense to expand transit than to build roads that will become clogged with traffic.

As elected officials try to assemble a regional list of transportation projects to entice voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax next year, pleasing a majority of metro residents will be difficult. With major light rail projects in the mix, pleasing all of Gwinnett’s 386,419 registered voters — 17 percent of the 10-county region’s 2.27 million voters — will be impossible.

“You’re either for light rail or you’re against light rail,” said Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, chairman of the regional “roundtable,” which will pull together a final project list. “It’s one of those polarizing projects.”

“Light rail” generally operates with smaller trains at slower speeds than heavy rail services such as MARTA. But Gwinnett voters might not recognize that distinction.

Attitude toward transit

Gwinnett voters overwhelmingly defeated a 1-cent sales tax to pay for MARTA in 1971 and again in 1990. Some observers said race played a role — Gwinnett was overwhelmingly white. Others cited a more general Southern cultural aversion to mass transit.

But some Gwinnett business leaders and residents say it’s time to give mass transit another shot.

The county’s population has more than doubled to 805,321 since that last vote. More than half of Gwinnett’s residents now are minorities. Many of those new residents come from outside the region and may be less averse to public transportation. And as Gwinnett’s population has skyrocketed, traffic congestion has become a widespread concern.

Gwinnett officials have included a total of $1.1 billion for five light rail projects on their $3.6 billion wish list. Those projects would build light rail starting in Doraville and ultimately going to the Gwinnett Arena in Duluth.

A December poll of more than 800 registered Gwinnett County voters found 46 percent of respondents would be more likely to favor next year’s referendum if the project list included new rail service linking Gwinnett to the rest of metro Atlanta. Thirty-five percent said they would be less likely to favor the proposal if rail were included.

The same poll showed Gwinnett residents remain skeptical of the sales tax measure. At most, 39 percent of residents said they would support the measure if the vote were held today. The poll was commissioned by two Gwinnett self-taxing business districts.

What Gwinnett residents might want will matter when a final project list comes together. Besides its large number of voters, Gwinnett has the second-largest contribution of sales taxes in the region.

What commuters face

In Gwinnett, it sometimes seems that all roads lead to Atlanta.

Try going north or south and you might travel some winding two-lane road. But if you’re commuting to Fulton County or DeKalb County, you’ve got your choice of half a dozen highways spanning four to 12 lanes.

Despite the choices, there aren’t enough lanes to keep routes such as I-85 or U.S. 78 from choking hopes of a speedy rush-hour commute. Estimates show anywhere from 40 percent to nearly 60 percent of Gwinnett workers travel to jobs outside the county. A quarter travel at least 45 minutes to work.

Skidmore of Buford drives 52 miles to reach his office on Fulton Industrial Boulevard near Six Flags Over Georgia. Depending on traffic, it can take up to two hours.

“You have to be out the door turning onto I-85 at 6:10,” Skidmore said. If he’s running five minutes late, it adds 20 to 30 minutes to his drive.

Skidmore said he will support a sales tax increase for road projects, especially anything along I-85.

“All of us complain about traffic and wasting gas [sitting in traffic],” Skidmore said. “Who’s going to fix that? Well, we fix it. The only way I know to make roads better is to pay for them.”

Gwinnett’s “wish list” of transportation projects includes plenty to make commuters such as Skidmore happy.

There are massive I-85 bridge replacement projects at Jimmy Carter Boulevard ($74.6 million) and Pleasant Hill Road ($58.5 million), as well as improvements at several other interchanges. There are also major improvements to other commuting routes such as Buford Highway, Ga. 316 and U.S. 78.

Sheldon, a Duluth resident, spent eight years on the county transit board. He drives 30 minutes to work in Chamblee. He said light rail would take drivers off the highways and expand Gwinnett’s tax base by encouraging new development.

Gwinnett has no MARTA rail and only limited bus service. It has six express bus routes — mostly to Atlanta — and five local routes. Only 1 percent of Gwinnett workers use public transportation, according to Census Bureau estimates.

Many residents say it makes no sense to spend money on a service few use. But Sheldon said building more roads only increases traffic, and new roads quickly become clogged.

“We can’t pave the world over,” Sheldon said. “How much more are we going to pave?”

Striking a balance between paving roads and laying track might determine the outcome of the referendum.

“If the majority of voters in the Atlanta region do not believe the final project list is worthy of an additional penny sales tax, that referendum is going to fail,” said County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash.

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Cities and towns submitted their wish lists in March: more than 400 projects worth up to $29 billion or more. Go to to see which projects hit closest to home and which have regional effects.