As he juggled his hats as Lawrenceville’s city manager and a member of the Atlanta Regional Transit Link Authority board Thurday, Chuck Warbington expressed certainty about the chances of a future MARTA in Gwinnett County.
It would benefit from being on the November 2020 ballot, he said.
Warbington was part of a trio of government and business officials who were asked to weigh in on a possible 2020 MARTA vote during a development forum hosted by Bisnow in Peachtree Corners. Joining him were Gwinnett Chamber President Nick Masino and Ackerman Retail President Leo Wiener.
The discussion was far-ranging with topics including the future of retail, housing for a diversity of income levels and the vitality of the Gwinnett Place Mall area. The talk was pitched, however, as a discussion on what comes next after Gwinnett voters rejected MARTA in March — and Warbington was the first to answer when the topic finally came up.
“When there is a vote that is held at a general election, I have no doubt it will pass,” he said. “It was put on a ballot (in March) that limited the interest in people wanting to vote for a variety of reasons. So I would say once it put in a general election, which will possibly be next year when there’s a presidential election, there’s a lot of interest.”
The topic of transit’s future in Gwinnett has been the subject of speculation since the failed MARTA referendum in the spring, and county leaders haven’t ruled out the possibility of another vote in November 2020, when the presidential election is expected to drive a big turnout at the polls.
After the defeat in March, county Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said it was not likely that the county would again put a transit question on a special election ballot, when turnout is lower than a general election.
But unlike the March vote where voters were asked to approve a transit plan solely crafted by Gwinnett leaders and consultants, a 2020 vote would be on a Gwinnett plan that has to first be vetted and approved by the Atlanta Regional Transit Link Authority, or ATL, board before it can go on the ballot.
The ATL board is expected to approve a regional transit plan by the end of the year, according to Warbington.
He also said Gwinnett will be a key player in a plan for developing transit across the region.
“You cannot have a regional transit system without Gwinnett County being involved,” Warbington said. “I want to make sure that is very clear. I think the board members with the ATL would all be in sync with that so the importance of having some sort of referendum for Gwinnett County sooner rather than later is very, very important.
“I hope it is next year and my understanding there’s some conversation happening. There needs to be tweaks to the plan, there needs to be more citizen input and, frankly, there needs to be more education about it.”
There are various reasons why the business community has an interest in what happens with transit in Gwinnett.
Some reasons that came up during the discussion at the Bisnow forum included a desire by bigger businesses to be in areas where employees can take transit to work and the fact that many businesses now look at an area’s transit system when deciding wether to relocate there.
“The reality is HR departments at companies are checking a box so if you tune that out, then you miss,” Wiener said. “I think that’s the reality. They’re listening to their employees.”
Masino pointed to another reason, however: the OFS property that Gwinnett County bought last year. It’s a large property at the Interstate 85 and Jimmy Carter Boulevard interchange. County officials have said a small portion of it could be used to house a multi-modal transit hub.
Even if transit expansion doesn’t work out in another vote, that land has value, he said.
There have been a handful of developers who have approached the chamber and Partnership Gwinnett about opportunities at the site, according to Masino.
“Gwinnett County now has the most desirable piece of property, arguably, close to (Interstate) 285 on the north end, so they’re not going to have any problem developing it,” he said.