Shifting attitudes could pave way for more suburban Atlanta transit

Jessica & Derek Behmke, Lawrenceville, look over one of the displays during a Gwinnett County information session on it’s proposed transit plan at the Gwinnett Justice and Administrative Center oin Lawrenceville. Among other things, the plan calls for a MARTA rail extension to Norcross and new bus rapid transit lines. Curtis Compton/

Jessica & Derek Behmke, Lawrenceville, look over one of the displays during a Gwinnett County information session on it’s proposed transit plan at the Gwinnett Justice and Administrative Center oin Lawrenceville. Among other things, the plan calls for a MARTA rail extension to Norcross and new bus rapid transit lines. Curtis Compton/

At a recent public hearing in Lilburn, Gwinnett County officials unveiled transit plans that only a few years ago would have touched off a four-alarm political fire.

An expansion of local bus service. Commuter bus connections to MARTA stations in DeKalb County. Perhaps the most inflammatory: an extension of MARTA rail into Norcross, across the once impenetrable Gwinnett County line.

In the past, angry Gwinnett residents might have turned out in force to denounce such plans. Instead, more than 40 listened politely. There was no shouting or even grumbling. And many applauded.

“I love this,” said Davida Baker of Tucker, who sees transit – not more roads – as the solution to the region’s traffic problems. “I love that they’re talking about it.”

Thursday, Gov. Nathan Deal signed legislation allowing 13 metro Atlanta counties to hold referendums on raising sales taxes to pay for mass transit. House Bill 930 could lead to the biggest expansion of transit service in the region in a generation.

The legislation would not have been possible without a dramatic change in attitude toward mass transit among suburban voters. The change is reflected in regional polls and in the newfound willingness of suburban politicians to hatch grand transit plans.

Gwinnett voters may get a chance to join MARTA this year – 28 years after they last formally rejected it. Fulton County is plotting its own transit vote. DeKalb and Cobb counties have launched transit studies that could lead to referendums.

Not everyone is sold. Most counties have no immediate plans to ask voters to pay for transit expansions. And even in those that do, many residents still bristle at the idea – especially if it involves MARTA rail.

“I understand it works in New York City. I understand it works in Chicago,” said Ron Weber of Lawrenceville. “But we are force-feeding rail into a community that was developed without rail because, quite frankly, the people around here didn’t want it.”

But even opponents acknowledge attitudes are changing. And 2018 might be the year some Atlanta suburbs begin embracing transit with same zeal they once opposed it.

Rejecting MARTA

For decades, MARTA was all many metro Atlanta residents knew of mass transit, and they didn’t much like it.

Founded in the 1960s, the agency that operates bus and rail service was originally intended to serve Atlanta and five surrounding counties. The city and Fulton and DeKalb counties embraced it.

But Cobb voters rejected MARTA service immediately. And, after initially agreeing to join, Gwinnett and Clayton voters refused to approve sales taxes to pay for it in 1971. Gwinnett voters said “no” again in 1990.

In the decades that followed, transit came slowly to the suburbs. MARTA completed its last rail line – to North Springs – in 2000. Clayton, Cobb and Gwinnett developed their own bus systems.

Today, the rest of the region is served by a mishmash of fixed-route buses, on-demand buses available by appointment, van pools and the state's commuter bus service, which serves 12 metro counties. But critics say the alphabet soup of agencies and services is inefficient. Commuters sometimes must travel by car, bus and train to get where they're going, making transit less appealing than sitting in metro Atlanta's famously awful traffic.

That’s where HB 930 comes in. Raising sales taxes, with voter permission, could mean billions of dollars for transit expansion in coming decades.

The bill also seeks to make sense of the mishmash by requiring individual county transit plans to win approval from a new regional board. The idea is to ensure coordination across county lines and create a seamless regional transit system.

“We are now getting ready to do something that I believe will be transformational for this region,” state Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, said Thursday before Deal signed the bill.

But many suburban residents aren’t so eager for transformation.

Ken Higgs of Dacula said Gwinnett’s bus service is poorly run, so expanding it makes no sense.

“The current transportation system cannot get the basics done,” Higgs said. “I am unwilling to be taxed for something that may happen in 20 years.”

Weber, the Lawrenceville resident, does not oppose commuter buses. But he called plans to bring MARTA rail service to Gwinnett “a complete waste of money” that would threaten its suburban character.

Weber used to live in DeKalb County. But he said he left for Gwinnett after the value of his home began to fall. He blames MARTA.

“This little world that was created here in Gwinnett County was developed as a bedroom community not catering to the urban lifestyle,” he said.

Anti-transit sentiments can be found across metro Atlanta. While most counties have no immediate plans to expand transit, at least one wants nothing to do with the regional board.

“We don’t want transit,” said Fayette County Commission Chairman Eric Maxwell. “We don’t want to be a part of this.”

Changing suburbs

Since 1990, when Gwinnett voters last rejected a proposed MARTA sales tax, the county’s population has nearly tripled to an estimated 920,260, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many of the newcomers were used to transit service elsewhere.

Baker, the Tucker resident, lived in Europe before moving to Gwinnett 40 years ago. She loved the mass transit service overseas – and hates traffic here.

“Rush hour starts up around 3:30,” she said. “We cannot build enough roads to move all these people and still have room for houses.”

Edward Bienkowski of Norcross is a former Florida resident. He loved Miami’s commuter rail service, and he’s glad Gwinnett is preparing to expand its own transit system - though, at 62, he’s not sure he’ll see it.

“It will be great for the next generation,” he said. “In reality, I’ll probably see very little of this.”

Metro Atlanta’s population boom also is transforming attitudes about transit in other communities.

Last fall, an Atlanta Regional Commission survey asked residents of 13 counties to pick the best long-term solution for traffic problems. In Atlanta and in Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties, a majority picked public transportation. A plurality of residents in most of the other counties said transit is the best solution.

The same survey found 56 percent of Gwinnett and Fulton residents were willing to pay higher taxes to expand regional bus and rail service. Majorities also were willing to pay more in Atlanta and DeKalb and Clayton counties.

Not surprisingly, transit initiatives have gained momentum in recent years. In 2014, Clayton County voters agreed to join MARTA. Two years later, Atlanta voters approved a MARTA expansion that will include new light rail and bus rapid transit lines.

Fulton officials recently agreed to a plan that calls for bus rapid transit routes on Ga. 400 and South Fulton Parkway. And Gwinnett officials have unveiled plans that include bus rapid transit lines, a MARTA rail extension to Norcross and other new transit services.

The next steps are unclear. Fulton officials must decide in the next few weeks whether to press for a transit referendum this fall or wait until at least next year. Gwinnett officials could call a referendum to join MARTA in November, or wait to pursue a transit expansion that does not involve MARTA.

Voters will have the final say on any transit plans. In Gwinnett, where they have repeatedly said “no,” Weber isn’t sure what would happen. He said many of the residents who opposed MARTA in the past “don’t live here anymore or they’ve died.”

“As we sit here right now, I think (a vote) would be split along party lines,” he said. “It’s going to be 50-50.”

County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said Gwinnett’s transit plan accounts for the character of various Gwinnett communities. Heavily populated areas and busy traffic corridors would get rail or high-capacity bus service, while more sparsely populated areas would get on-demand shuttle service.

“The same type of transit is not being proposed for Dacula that’s being proposed for Norcross,” Nash said.

Nonetheless, Gwinnett's population continues to boom. It's already Georgia's second-largest county and is forecast to surpass Fulton by 2040. More people will bring more traffic, and the leafy suburban enclave that many residents found decades ago may continue to fade.

“Things are changing,” Nash said, “with or without transit.”

House Bill 930 at a glance

  • Allows 13 metro Atlanta counties to raise sales taxes for mass transit, if voters approve
  • Creates a new board to coordinate transit planning and construction across the region
  • Allows Gwinnett County voters to consider joining MARTA this year
  • Allows Cobb County to create a transit district that could raise taxes for transit