Gwinnett County getting left behind as it puts rapid transit on hold

By Maria Saporta

Gwinnett today is paying the price for not approving MARTA decades ago.

Last week, the news came out that NCR – in addition to moving its headquarters to Midtown Atlanta – is going to be expanding its intown campus with a new 14-story tower. That will add another 1,800 jobs on top of the 3,600 moving with the corporate headquarters.

At the same time as that announcement, NCR confirmed that it had scrapped plans for a second campus in the north metro area.

The majority of new job announcements in the metro area have one thing in common – they are within walking distance of a MARTA station.

And most companies planning technology hubs or innovations centers are locating near Georgia Tech or a research-related university.

So what does that mean for Gwinnett and the other metro counties without rail transit?

It means they are being left behind.

Gwinnett transit

Map shows vision Citizens for Progressive Transit has for region. Left to right: Art Sheldon, MARTA’s Ben Limmer, Lee Biola, and Rep. Pete Marin (Photo by Maria Saporta)

At a Sierra Club forum in Lawrenceville on Sept. 13, panelists talked about bringing transit to Gwinnett. After a few minutes, it became clear there still are no short-term plans to join MARTA or invest in rail transit.

Gwinnett County is planning a six-year, one-cent local option sales tax that will be voted on in November. But that money is slated to go to roads and other county needs.

Art Sheldon, a longtime advocate for transit in Gwinnett, said the county’s leaders have specifically said the SPLOST will have no money for transit other than doing a study for transit along I-85.

“(Gwinnett Chairwoman) Charlotte Nash made it very clear that no money from this (tax) would be used for transit,” Sheldon said, adding that county leaders understand there is a growing need for transit, but they are taking it “step by step.”

“It’s very frustrating that we’re not thinking ahead,” State Rep. Pete Marin responded. Marin said he believes that 80 percent of his constituents want rapid transit, but there is no mechanism to get county leaders to endorse the idea.

The word also is out. Gwinnett leaders are not supposed to talk about MARTA or transit until after the November election – to make sure conversation doesn’t confuse the voter.

But the reality is the longer Gwinnett pushes transit to the side of the road, the farther behind it gets for both its residents and its economic development potential.

Gwinnett has been changing.

First there is demographics. The county is a majority-minority meaning Caucasians no longer represent more than half of the population. Its population has become much more diverse  with fast-growing Latino and Asian populations.

Gwinnett transit

Gwinnett residents attend Sierra Club’s recent transit forum. Jim Shealey, who is running for Gwinnett Chairman, sits in the front row (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Second, the county is becoming more urban rather than suburban – with numerous town centers – such as Norcross, Duluth and Lawrenceville.

Tom Weyandt, a retired planner who used to work at the Atlanta Regional Commission, reminded the attendees that those towns actually were formed as stops along their rail lines – which are still in place, but now only carry freight. With Gwinnett’s growing population, it would make sense to connect the cities with rail transit.

Lee Biola, who is with the Citizens for Progressive Transit, observed that most of the recent economic development announcements were located near transit. “Almost all the tallest buildings have been built after MARTA opened, its doors,” Biola said.

Rep. Marin added that Gwinnett needs rapid transit to remain economically competitive, observing the recent news by NCR.

Meanwhile, as Gwinnet stays static, other areas are moving forward. Clayton County voted to join MARTA nearly two years ago, and it was able to restart its bus service, and MARTA and the county are exploring ways to invest in rail transit that would serve Clayton.

Weyandt also told the Gwinnett audience that Atlanta is not standing still. It will vote on an additional .5 cents for MARTA in November (a 41-year commitment) as well as a .4 cent sales tax for other transportation for the next five years.

gwinnett transit

The Sierra Club’s Brionté McCorkle takes questions from audience while standing next to Tom Weyandt (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“The City of Atlanta is about to make a generational investment in its transit system,” Weyandt said, predicting both measures will easily pass. ”It’s not just Gwinnett, but Fulton County and DeKalb County that ought to think about their relative competitiveness as time goes on.”

And once those communities actually decide they want rail transit, it would take an estimated 10 years for service to begin.

Meanwhile, Rev. Harriett Bradley needs transit now.

To get to the meeting, she took one bus, and then she missed her transfer to get from Norcross to Lawrenceville. So she ended up taking Uber to get to the transit forum, and she told the crowd that because buses quit running in the evening, she would have to take Uber home.

“People who use buses can not come to meetings like this,” she said. “That’s why God has me here.”

Some people in Gwinnett realize, the clock is ticking for the county.

Audience member, Jim Shealey, stood up at the end of the meeting to say he is running for chairman of the Gwinnett County Commission on a pro-transit platform.

As Shealey said: “Gwinnett has to change.”

That change can’t come soon enough.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

27 replies
  1. Geoff says:

    We recently moved to Gwinnett from the West coast where even small cities have excellent bus service. I was shocked by how little Gwinnett has progressed in this area as a major county in a major metro area. It clearly is impacting the economic viability and competitiveness of the county and it’s burgs.Report

    Reply
  2. Jonathan Banes says:

    If counties like Gwinnett and Cobb want to continue attracting more people and money vis-a-vis businesses, then it needs to either join MARTA finally and help continue its new found growth into the real regional mass transit agency that it should have been 35-40 years ago or they need to dramatically expand their own systems to include more bus routes, paratransit services, and heavy and/or light rail.
    Otherwise, they’re going to lose their appeal to South Fulton, Henry, and even Clayton as it overcomes its own municipal issues.Report

    Reply
  3. Wade Ricks says:

    As a former longtime resident of DeKalb , I always resented those who fled out there to Whiteyville and still leached onto our services. Not surprised to see the Neanderthals are still in charge. Maybe they can get their income from picking cotton after the jobs dry up.Report

    Reply
  4. GAdamBruns says:

    Maria, the ARC’s “Metro Atlanta Speaks” survey last fall showed that Gwinnett County respondents today know the importance of transit to the region, and their numbers go well beyond Sierra Clubbers. Those findings align with the spring 2015 survey by the Gwinnett Chamber that found 63% favor MARTA’s expansion into the county, and fully half would back a 1% sales tax to support it. Even with its historical transit phobia, Gwinnett continues to attract a healthy number of corporate investments. Think what it and other suburban regions will do when MARTA finally expands to where it should be … something Site Selection founder Mac Conway advocated repeatedly after co-writing the original MARTA enabling legislation in 1967. He also knew the cost of delay: “Had it actually gotten underway then, it would have been a very timely move,” he wrote 40 years later in our pages. “Unfortunately, the officials involved did not get actual construction started until about 10 years later. During that interval, developers located high-rise buildings in the planned right-of-way, and the cost more than doubled.” — Adam Bruns, Managing Editor, Site Selection magazine, Peachtree Corners, GeorgiaReport

    Reply
  5. scfranklin says:

    The state of Georgia is derelict in its duty to promote and facilitate a healthy envrionment for its residents. It is in the state’s interest to lead in the area of transit development because it is in the interest of its taxpayers, its residents and its businesses. Yet we continue to place the blame on local government. The blame should be placed on every governor since the 1970’s (we can give Roy Barnes some slack because at least he tried to changed course with GRTA) who has ignored the obligation to lead the funding and building of an integrated, sustainable accessible metropolitan transportation system based national and international research and data supporting such. Our air and water would be cleaner and our traffic would be manageable. Shame on Governor Deal for not changing the course of action.
    For those who care please forgive the errors in spelling and grammar and the typos. The intent is clear.Report

    Reply
  6. Dennis Carman says:

    GA as a whole will continue to lose-out as we do not have an adequate transit plan, which as noted is ostensibly missing a collective multimodal solution, especially with rail at the core, is long overdue. Continuing to be in denial of this path will incur unfavorable long-term economic conditions…With that fundamental position in mind, why are individual municipalities allowed to tamper if not outright hinder the state’s economic well-being? ie John Albers denying the TSPLOST ballot measure for this November, heavily weighted in the limited perspectives of Alpharetta’s David Belle Isle and Johns Creek’s Mike Bodker. These un-progressive positions will continue the delay in real, scaleable traffic relief and place avoidable economic pressures on our state, all aside from the environmental impacts of building traffic volumes and road-only short-term solutions.Report

    Reply
  7. matthewhouser says:

    I believe that if residents of Norcross, Peachtree Corners, Lilburn and, perhaps, Duluth were allowed to vote on the question of transit separately from the rest of the County, they would vote for an expansion of MARTA via a one-cent tax.  I doubt that the rest of the County would pass it as they are so far away from MARTA now it would take too long to get it to them.Report

    Reply
  8. J.r. Rich-Bellerose says:

    Funny how people infer facts from their own limited perspective and experiences. There is a world of people out there riding trains and doing things, might want to do a little research before you open your mouth to make such bold and false assumptions.Report

    Reply
  9. Gwinnett resident says:

    “Gwinnett today is paying the price for not approving MARTA decades ago.
    Last week, the news came out that NCR – in addition to moving its headquarters to Midtown Atlanta – is going to be expanding its intown campus with a new 14-story tower. That will add another 1,800 jobs on top of the 3,600 moving with the corporate headquarters.”

    Good riddance. Less people to add to traffic and less trees cut down.Report

    Reply
  10. John Doe says:

    Though I drive, I’m most comfortable traveling by train and was accustomed to doing that on a regular basis when I landed a summer position in Gwinnett county. Holy hell, traffic was a nightmare. That was an awful, awful commute. Gwinnett has long lost any rural character and benefits it once had. Yet, it lacks the amenities, such as public transit, of a proper city. It features all the worst aspects of being in a rural area ( everyone must own their own car; its difficult to get around) with all the worst aspects of a large city (crowded, heavy traffic, absolutely life-threatening to pedestrians). It lacks the appeal of rural areas (wide fields, large forests, miles between neighbors) and it lacks the appeal of a genuine city (walkability, compact business zones, ethnic food of all varieties steps from the station door or from the front of the office building). I don’t know how people can stand it on a long term basis. Just running out for lunch felt like a Mad Max motorized ordeal. Don’t Gwinnett residents’ nerves get frayed?Report

    Reply
  11. Progress Orthus says:

    GAdamBruns 

    MARTA loses $500m per year in operating income ($650 million spent, $150m taken in fare revenue). They pay no property taxes on their underused parking lots. Ridership has been in constant decline since 2002. Last year saw the first increase of 2.5% and still under the forecasted ridership. The only reason State Farm, Mercedes Benz are building developments next to train stations is cities like Dunwoody and Sandy Springs Development Authorities have gone on spending sprees. The City of Dunwoody 100% financed a $780m development. DeKalb County is in the last year of an EPA Sewer Consent decree because of a crumbling sewer system. All those new toilets will go right into Peachtree Creek and West Nancy Creek. And you though Flint, MI had a problem??Report

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

What are your thoughts?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.