One way or another, March 19, 2019, might be a standout among the key dates in Gwinnett County history.
With voters set to visit the polls that day to decide whether the county should institute a 1 percent sales tax to join MARTA, the metro Atlanta transit system that is either loved or hated depending on who is asked, a lot is riding on whatever decision shakes out.
Georgia’s second most populous county, which has more than 900,000 residents, could either become a member of the regional transit system, or its leaders could be sent back to the drawing board to start over from scratch.
That fact is not lost on county officials such as Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Charlotte Nash.
“I believe that transit expansion is the biggest decision currently facing Gwinnett, as important to the future of the county as the past decisions about water, sewer and roads have been to the county,” Nash said.
The months of debating whether Gwinnett should join MARTA and of informational meetings held in community centers and libraries will begin coming to a head Monday when early voting for the referendum begins.
For the first week of early voting, voters will only be able to cast ballots at the Gwinnett County Voter Registrations and Elections Office located at 455 Grayson Highway, Suite 200 in Lawrenceville. Starting March 4, seven satellite polling locations will open around the county as well.
But what is at stake in this election?
If the referendum passes, Gwinnett County and MARTA will be in a contract together until at least 2057.
MARTA would carry out the Connect Gwinnett Transit Development Plan, which is split up into short-, middle- and long-term phases of implementation.
It calls for a heavy rail line extension from Doraville to at least the Jimmy Carter Boulevard corridor; bus rapid transit lines; rapid bus service; expanded local, express and paratransit service; eventual bus service from Snellville to the Indian Creek MARTA station in DeKalb County; and flex service throughout several parts of the county.
“The improvements proposed by Gwinnett represent the largest expansion of transit in the metro Atlanta region in many years and will make the regional transit system more useful to the entire region, but especially to Gwinnett,” Nash said.
Gwinnett Chamber President Dan Kaufman called Gwinnett’s previous failed MARTA referendums in 1971 and 1990 “a missed opportunity.” The chamber’s Board of Directors has voted to endorse passage of the referendum, and Kaufman said the upcoming vote “really is an inflection point” for the county.
“Assuming the referendum passes, it will be sort of the next iteration of transformation for Gwinnett, both in terms of its connectivity to the region, but really in my judgment the economic development that will follow,” Kaufman said.
Nash said transit will also play a key role in how Gwinnett addresses anticipated population growth as well if the referendum passes. The county is expected to add somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 additional residents over the next 20 years and become Georgia’s most populous county.
“With 500,000 more people expected to call Gwinnett home in 20 to 25 years and the increase in business traffic that is anticipated, I cannot imagine what traffic will be like then if we fail to expand both transit and roads,” she said. “We are going to need all possible options to continue to be a successful community.”
An expert take on the issue
One local expert on transit issues said the extent to which bringing MARTA to Gwinnett helps the county and the region depends on more than just population growth.
“What’s really going to make it successful is the number of riders and to what degree do people feel that they’re going to take the train into Atlanta,” Georgia State University professor Joseph Hacker said.
The Connect Gwinnett Transit Development Plan, which MARTA would use as its blueprint for serving the county, anticipates that a local sales tax to fund transit would generate $7.5 billion in “year of expenditure dollars” over a 30-year period.
Add into that an anticipated $3.1 billion in federal funding, $842.2 million in expected farebox collections and an estimated $521.9 million in state and other funding and county officials expect to bring in more than $12 billion from various sources over 30 years.
They also forecast costs to run about $11.9 billion between capital, operations and maintenance over 30 years. That means county officials anticipate bringing in $112.3 million more than it costs to run transit over that time period.
Regarding the promise of extending heavy rail 4 miles north from Doraville to Norcross, Hacker said he wasn’t sure it was the right solution for Gwinnett.
For one, he said buses can provide a more immediate benefit than rail. He also said he sees Gwinnett as being different from the suburbs of other major cities around the country.
“All of my work before (coming) here was in Philadelphia, and there, the suburban train system really is viewed as connecting workers and employment center,” he said.
“I just don’t have that sense in Gwinnett County because of the businesses have already moved to Gwinnett County, so it makes more sense for Gwinnett County to pay for buses that operate in the county and provide that level of mobility for seniors, people without cars (and) people under 16. All of those (groups) in other cities are very viable passenger groups.”
Pro-MARTA group fighting for passage
There are various groups in the community that are stirring support for the referendum’s passage including the chamber of commerce and the Gwinnett Democratic Party, but the main officials pro-MARTA group is Go Gwinnett.
The group formally launched in early January and has appeared at community events, including forums and Nash’s State of the County Address on Wednesday. It has also launched a website at GoGwinnett.org to outline its arguments for passage of the referendum.
The group asserts that expanded transit under Connect Gwinnett plan would benefits students, particularly those attending college, who are trying to get to their classes as well as offering workers an alternative to get to work other than driving their cars.
It is also pitching the plan as a way to expand mobility options for senior citizens and disabled residents.
“This transit plan was developed with significant input from Gwinnett citizens and will position us as an innovative transit leader in the region that others will follow,” Go Gwinnett representative Paige Havens said during public comment at the Lawrenceville City Council’s Feb. 4 meeting.
Not everyone favors MARTA
Just as proponents are organizing to build support for passage, opposition groups are also coalescing with Facebook pages, websites such as martahoax.com and a GoFundMe page.
Some opponents expressed frustration that they did not believe all parts of the county would see benefits from joining MARTA. Others, such as Norcross resident Joe Newton, have expressed concerns over the funding for Gwinnett’s involvement in MARTA as well as whether the transit system could fix transportation issues in Gwinnett.
“People just need to realize they are voting on their financial futures,” Newton said.
Newton said he doesn’t believe enough people ride the Gwinnett County Transit buses that are already in service.
He also criticized the fact that only four miles of rail are guaranteed in the plan, as well as the phrasing of the question that will appear on the ballot, which mentions the transit contract, but doesn’t say it is with MARTA and doesn’t mention a sales tax increase.
“We’re just not being treated fair,” Newton said. “This thing is being shoved off on us without even telling people it’s a tax on the ballot or that we’re doing business with MARTA.”
A desire to do something now
But Nash said she believes something should be done about transit and transportation in Gwinnett in the near future rather than putting it off to a later date.
“At the very least, failure of this referendum would delay the ability to pursue a substantial expansion of transit options,” she said. “Instead of focusing on implementation and moving forward with improved transit services, we would have to apply time and energy to developing an alternate plan.
“I feel a sense of urgency about transit because I know that many of the improvements have a long lead time while the pressures on our transportation system just keep increasing.”