Commissioners debate transit during Gr8 Exchange presentation

Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District executive director Chuck Warbington introduces the findings of the Gr8 Exchange on Transportation on Tuesday during a presentation to county commissioners. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

The results of the Gr8 Exchange on Traansportation showed a sizable amount of support for mass transit in Gwinnett County, but county commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash isn’t convinced that necessarily means support for MARTA.

About 54 percent of respondants in the survey said they support a multi-modal transportation system that could include transit. Earlier this year, a Gwinnett Chamber survey indicated a majority of residents would support the idea of the county joining MARTA as well, but showed fewer people expressed enthusiasm about paying for it.

But the question in Nash’s mind is whether those same people would be as likely to go to the polls to vote for MARTA as they are to say “Yes” to a survey question. She said there is a gap between people who favor it in a survey and people who are willing to vote for it.

“It won’t pass,” Nash said. “We could put the referendum on (the ballot) at the next chance and it won’t pass. That’s what the real polling information tells us. This was a survey that’s not scientific in nature. The poll that was done by the chamber showed that the actual voting (public) will not support the referendum.”

A presentation on the Gr8 Exchange on Transportation findings on Tuesday turned into a debate between Gwinnett County commissioners on mass transit.

The debate began when Commissioner John Heard said he saw the results as a shift in public opinion on mass transit.

“We voted on MARTA a couple of times and that has been turned down at the polls those times, but that goes back many, many years,” Heard said. “This shows me a paradigm shift where public transportation and transit is embraced.”

Gwinnett County has its own bus-based mass transit system, but the question of whether the county should join MARTA has existed for decades, going back to the MARTA Act of 1965.

Heard conceded, however, that the online and smartphone-based approach to the Gr8 exchange made it more attractive to millenials who may or may not go to polls to vote for a MARTA referendum.

Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District Executive Director Chuck Warbington said county leaders should not get hung up on MARTA when they review the Gr8 Exchange’s findings, however. Warbington organized the effort which was funded by his CID, as well as the Gwinnett Place CID.

“We need to get beyond it being a MARTA issue,” he said. “We wanted to make sure this isn’t a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to MARTA. This is about how are we going to be connected and how do we connect in regards to the modes of transportation. There has been a paradigm shift in regards to people being more open to transit and other modes of transportation.

“It’s not just about transit. Think about sidewalks. Ten years ago, you would not have had a large number of folks saying, ’ We need to spend a whole lot of money on sidewalks.”

The results showed Gr8 Exchange respondants considered convenience a bigger factor than cost in their support for transportation solutions. Commissioner Tommy Hunter pointed out specific dollar figures were not attached to the question and respondants were not asked whether they would commit their own money to pay for it, however.

“That’s where convenience versus cost begins to narrow, when you really starting down to, ‘Well how does that impact me?” Hunter said.

Nash said the question of paying for transit is a key issue to consider when having a conversation about whether to expand Gwinnett’s system or allowing MARTA to move into the county.

The county is already adding funding for additional express and regular transit routes in its 2016 budget. The county will also be allowed to hold its own transportation SPLOST in the future.

But going as far as welcoming MARTA to Gwinnett is something that involves a lot of money.

“When you’re moving from aspirational to discussion, to actual planning and implementation, you’ve got to be able to pay for it,” Nash said. “That’s what it boils down to. It’s a matter of how you come up with dollar to do any of it, whether its a road project or some other type of transportation.

“It’s great to have the aspirational conversation, but then you get down to the reality of the dollars that its take to do any of this.”

Commissioner Jace Brooks said there are two sides to the issue to consider, though, referring to the fact that congestion could lead to businesses overlooking Gwinnett when trying to find a place in metro Atlanta to relocate.

“There’s a cost of having transit, and a cost of not having transit,”Brooks said.

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I'm a Crawford Long baby who grew up in Marietta and eventually wandered to the University of Southern Mississippi for college. Earned a BA in journalism (double minor in political science and history). Previously worked in Florida and Clayton County.

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