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Gwinnett candidates diverge on transit

Maggie Lee
An interstate sign for Interstate 85 north and south
The interstate in Gwinnett might — or might not — get some kind of rail transit parallel to it. Credit: Dougtone CC by-sa 2.0

By Maggie Lee

Gwinnett County will elect a new leader this year and transit topped the list of questions at a Wednesday night forum.

Retiring county commission Chair Charlotte Nash went against some of her fellow Republicans when she embraced the idea of building MARTA heavy rail in the county and drastically expanding bus service.

But county voters turned down the transit plan in a low-turnout 2019 vote. Opposition came from a mix of places, like folks who didn’t want to pay a penny sales tax for transit, or folks who thought the plan didn’t go far enough, especially in south Gwinnett. A county panel has since come up with a new transit plan that may go before voters this year.

When Gwinnett voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016, it turned up speculation that a Democratic wave has reached what’s long been a red county.

So there’s a lot riding on this result, for both parties. The partisan primaries for the office will be on the June 9 ballot.

Here’s a sample of the eight Gwinnett County Commission chair candidates on transit (in the order asked at the forum.) For full remarks, the Gateway 85 Community Improvement District website is set to post the video in the coming days. It’s one of the five CIDs that hosted the forum.

Desmond Nembhard (D):

“My vision for transportation in Gwinnett is to see a complete, a service that covers Gwinnett County, not what we have now. I want to see a bus system system that covers the entire county and at the same time … [offers] a convenient transfer to Marta, to get people downtown to work so we can ease the congestion on the road.”

Lee Thompson Jr. (D):

“Our vision for transit is a comprehensive plan that includes easy links to the MARTA rail lines and a way to transport people within the county at hub stations that are attractive and easy to use, and also includes bike trails and pedestrian ways …

I believe the new plan proposed by the transit review committee in January is an improvement over the plan that was submitted to the voters last year and a starting point. It has better coverage of the county, it has more transit operations and options and expanded hours and … provides additional flex services.

… We should encourage people to go to flex schedules and telecommuting because we’ve learned [due to COVID-19] there are a lot of things that we can do from our homes these days. Any plan we approve has to … increase ridership and cause people to actually participate in in the system and get out of their cars.

Nicole Love Hendrickson (D):

[T]ransit options are still very much needed for residents …

You just have to think about providing choices because not everybody has a car, has access to a car, even wants to use a car. And so thinking about congestion really is about being innovative and forward-thinking in getting people off the roads in addressing the various demographic needs that exist within the county.

The solution to transit in my opinion is not a silver bullet or a blanket approach. We have to be cognizant of the different needs of seniors and young professionals and low-income families. And so we need to provide options that cater to the various demographics. … I voted in favor of the referendum last year. I believe that it’s about creating options for people who don’t have a car and it’s also about creating opportunities for our economy.

David Post (R):

I realize that mobility enhances the quality of life of the citizens in Gwinnett. County. But it has to be reasonable and it has to be responsible. These are things that we still have to work out.

I know there’s probably not a transit system, anywhere that’s profitable, at least that I know. And it’s something that’s for the citizens, but there’s got to be a justification for that convenience, if you will …

So there are a lot of options, but we’re going to have to look and see which ones will make sense and which ones are really justified. Whatever we do, it has to be justified for the citizens and financially because somebody has to pay for it.

Andy Morgan (D):

[The new transit plan] in my view, this plan is not bold enough. It basically looks at us not having a link to the Doraville train station until 30 years from now. This is something we needed yesterday …

I also think that transit should be looked at as more than just a mobility issue, [but] also as an economic development issue. I think the 85 corridor is something we need to focus on, and not just in terms of the cost of transit, but the knock-on effects we have as far as development and how it’s going to effect the county as a whole in terms of serving as an economic driver.

… But again, I say I think we need to be more bold in terms of our perspective, because I would like to see a link of some sort going, not just to Jimmy Carter in 30 years, but all the way up to Sugarloaf in the next 10 to 15 years if possible.

Curt Thompson (D):

I would support the proposed transit plan if it’s placed on the November ballot. I voted for the referendum in March [2019].

However, personally I believe that the plan does need some amendments. I think it doesn’t address enough of the needs in south Gwinnett …

If the current county commission chooses not to place it on the November ballot, then we as a commission need to take a serious review of that transit plan and ensure that whatever plan we put forward to voters creates equitably distributed access for all the residents of Gwinnett County, not just as a matter of fairness, but honestly to better ensure passage of such a plan on a later ballot referendum.

The plan needs to emphasize, in my opinion, light rail and bus rapid transit over more expensive heavy rail on the proposed routes so that you can expand rail transit options in south Gwinnett, and more quickly connect to the existing MARTA system.

George Awuku (R):

… All the assumptions that went into this report [new transit plan] … given this COVID-19 situation, … I think there’s a need for pause button, we need to go back and revisit that report and see if there is a need for fine-tuning it, given what has happened recently with this COVID-19 situation.

Will people really still want to be in a mass transit system where you sit in close proximity with others? No one really can see what the future is going to hold with all this COVID-19 situation.

Additionally, we know that the revenues that we will be generating as a county to support such a transit system might not be ready. I’d love to be realistic and maybe revisit the assumptions and the whole premises for mas transit.

But as the report is written, if this were without this COVID issue, I would I would go further I can see myself supporting this …mass transit system.

Marcia L. Neaton (R):

The transit review committee did a good job.

And I’ll go ahead and get the elephant in the room out of the way. I am not a MARTA fan.

I understand linking up to MARTA and I think that’s a good idea. But hard rail is not the way to go. Technology is changing too fast, and it will have economic impacts on what we’re going to be doing in the future. And we need to take that into account and a lot of that transit review committee did a good job, and I do support a lot of it.

But I think when Gwinnett County’s got way too much talent to offload that whole transportation issue downtown to MARTA. I think we ought to keep it here. And we ought to, we ought to be able to keep control of it. And I think we’re going to be better at handling the questions and the dynamics of being able to change and address other systems’ requirements as they come on board.

And I would really hope that we would take a look at Gwinnett as a whole, because I do believe the 78 corridor got left out of the initial planning stages, and that needs to be taken into account seriously.

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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