Poll: Support for rail service high over wide demographics

NORCROSS - Gwinnett residents' support for rail service could be an economic boon for the county, a Chamber of Commerce vice president said.

Nick Masino, the Chamber's vice president of economic development, said residents' assertion that they would use rail service if it came to Gwinnett would have a double impact - first on reducing congestion and second in allowing high-density developments to pop up around the transit centers.

"Traffic is one of our number one economic impediments," Masino said. "It would be incredibly impactful ... It would spur on economic development."

The Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District funded a poll, along with the Gwinnett Place CID, asking more than 500 active voters their opinions of rail service and the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. The result, pollster Mark Rountree said, turned conventional wisdom about MARTA on its head.

"It's eye-opening, is what it is," Rountree said. "People are ready for alternatives."

In 1990, Gwinnett voters overturned a tax referendum that would have extended MARTA into the county by a wide margin. According to the poll, 66 percent of voters now hold a favorable opinion of the rail system.

Those numbers are steady across racial, geographic and gender lines, Rountree said.

"The numbers transcended any demographics," he said. "Rail is clearly the answer of what people want."

But Rountree cautioned that he did not ask people whether they would vote for a rail system and that respondents seemed to be opposed to new taxes that would fund the system. That support would come once more concrete plans were in place, he said.

Some members of the CID's board speculated that the thousands of new residents who have moved into the county over the past two decades swayed the poll in favor of rail. Gwinnett Village Community Alliance Director Sally Haggard, a native Gwinnettian, said while she thinks that may have something to do with it, younger residents have different views about transit than their parents did.

"The younger generation is growing up and realizing it makes sense," Haggard said. "We're ready for it."

Bruce Le'Vell, a member of both the MARTA and Gwinnett Village boards, said he wasn't surprised by the support rail garnered. In the past, he said, traffic simply wasn't bad enough to convince people to get out of their cars.

"I always knew the public was screaming for something in terms of rail," Le'Vell said. "It was never relayed to voters the right way. When you get up at 7 a.m. and you pull out on Hamilton Mill, you're in traffic."

In conjunction with the poll, the CID studied extending MARTA's heavy rail line from the Doraville station to the Gwinnett Place Mall before deeming it too expensive. A light rail study will follow in the coming months, CID Director Chuck Warbington said.