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Gwinnett County transit: Voters objected to heavy rail, rejected referendum

By David Pendered

They were heard. Gwinnett County voters who said they didn’t want a heavy rail transit line helped defeat the transit referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot.

gwinnett transit tax vote 2020

Gwinnett County voters rejected a proposed 1% transit tax that would have lasted 30 years. Precincts marked in green voted ‘No’ on a measure that failed by just over 1,000 votes, according to the county’s report. Credit: gwinnettcounty.com

The measure failed by just over 1,000 votes out of a total of 398,041 votes cast in the referendum. The figures are the official and complete results, according to the county’s report.

The opponents had made known their opposition to heavy rail in discussions this past Spring and Summer. Heavy rail was a lightning rod for debate in the referendum for a proposed 1% sales tax for transit, to be collected for 30 years.

Opposition to rail prompted the Black female county commissioner whose district includes the old tannery town of Buford to vote in June against the transit plan because it included heavy rail. Gwinnett Commissioner Marlene Fosque said hers was an “I heard you” vote. Fosque later voted to put the referendum on the ballot.

Opposition to rail prompted Gwinnett County Chairperson Charlotte Nash to say her decision was weighed by constituents voicing the same concerns Fosque had cited. Nash knows Gwinnett: She’s been a fixture in the county’s leadership since the 1970s. In the end, Nash chose to support the position of commissioners who said the MARTA/heavy rail component should be included in this round of funding and not deferred.

Gwinnett, Norcross

Gwinnett County voters rejected a 1% transit tax that was to provide funds to build heavy rail and a transit hub in this industrial area east of Norcross, a blighted stretch of land along Crescent Drive. File/Credit: David Pendered

Whatever the transit plan was or wasn’t, some number of voters didn’t want to pay for MARTA to come into the county as the builder and operator of a heavy rail transit line to a terminus in Norcross. Only MARTA can handle heavy rail in metro Atlanta, under state law.

The motive of the opposition to MARTA/heavy rail is a matter of conjecture.

Cost could be one aspect.

The $2.1 billion price to build and operate heavy rail to Norcross meant less bus and paratransit service throughout the county. This may have mattered to voters who want more local bus service, and don’t see much difference between commuting to a planned station Norcross, or to an existing MARTA station, to catch a train.

The price of heavy rail represented 17 percent of the $12.2 billion to be raised over the 30-year lifespan of the sales tax. This formula presumed federal approval and funding could be obtained.

Distrust of MARTA could be an aspect of the opposition to heavy rail.

Gwinnett County voters rejected a referendum on a 1% sales tax for transit that would have increased bus service in the business district along Satellite Boulevard. File/Credit: David Pendered

This could be distrust of any government that’s seen as distant and unresponsive. Gwinnett has experienced the municipalization movement that’s swept across Fulton and DeKalb counties. The city of Peachtree Corners was incorporated in 2012, partly as the result of a 20-year complaint of growth and development approved in the region by Gwinnett’s Board of Commissioners.

This could be distrust of MARTA as a manager of tax dollars. A comprehensive management audit presented almost a decade ago by KPMG has been implemented and has improved efficiencies. Moody’s Investors Service reported in March the system’s finances are sound. However, the audit did establish that management practices did have room for improvement.

Distrust of MARTA could relate to its perceived role as a provider of a transit bridge that would ease access for non-whites to and from the county. However, the county’s racial diversity is significant, bringing into question the distrust of “other.”

The county’s proportion of white-only residents, not Hispanic or Latino, is 35.4%; Fulton’s proportion is 39.6%, according to 2019 estimates by the Census.

Gwinnett’s school system reports 100 languages are spoken among the student population, according to a report by Georgia Power. Enrollment is about 180,000 students. The school system reported in 2015 enrollment of 26% white students, down from 80% in 1985.


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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  1. Larry November 15, 2020 6:24 pm

    The figure early in the article about failing by 0.002% is incorrect. It should be 0.2%Report

    1. David Pendered November 16, 2020 1:32 pm

      Hello, Larry,
      Thank you for the close read. I’ll remove the percentage.
      My math shows that 1,000 of 398,000 represents 0.002 of the total ballots cast.
      Better to remove a point that raises more issues than it seeks to resolve.
      Best regards,

  2. Joe briggs November 15, 2020 10:18 pm

    On what planet do you live on? This was rejected by voters because it was a bus deal when voters wanted rail. If it eliminated bus and provided multiple rail connections, it would have passed by a landslide. This was a bus bill intended to make high density housing more attractive and nobody wants more apartments.Report

  3. S. Carter November 16, 2020 12:40 pm

    Having just moved back to Gwinnett after living in the city of Atlanta for 20 years, I can tell you the noise of buses and crime from MARTA is not worth it. We moved to get away from crime. In the past, I was for light/heavy rail out here; not anymore. Let me tell you about the crime surrounding the Lenox, 5 Points, Inman Park, MLK transits. I’m not interested in more of that.Report

    1. CLoud November 17, 2020 9:11 pm

      Transit leads to equity, not crime. No one will be riding the Marta train with your stolen tv. Let’s not fear mongerReport

      1. Elizabeth Sobon December 12, 2020 9:43 am

        Equity? What does that even mean? People just throw that out as a line with no context. You want rail service, move to Atlanta.Report

  4. Nicole November 16, 2020 3:02 pm

    We voted no because we plan on moving out of the area in the next 2 years and did not want to make the decision for whoever moves in to be stuck with this tax for 30 years. I think the term was the biggest sticking point for most people.Report

  5. Elizabeth Sobon December 12, 2020 9:42 am

    I live in North Gwinnett so the proposal would have no benefit for me or most people living above Jimmy Carter Blvd. If people move to the suburbs, they shouldn’t expect to have all the services of a city. The 1% tax for 30 years was bad enough but that would not be the end of it. Mistrust of all government officials, especially now, was the main cause. They take our money by force of law and then use it to pay off friends and family. Plus the increased in crime and pollution is really not worth it.Report

  6. Irving December 21, 2020 6:12 pm

    I voted no because, in the plan leading up to the 2019 vote, the total cost per rider trip would have been an outrageous $35 (almost all of which would be paid by taxes), and that’s if this enormous project stayed on plan and on budget. $35 to wait on bus schedules, have to travel to bus stations, deal with breakdowns. Why not just subsidize Uber for a much more rider-friendly solution at lower cost? As well, I could find no quantified projection of traffic improvement or air pollution reduction.

    I could find no info on any of this for the revised plan in 2020, and when I requested the info through official channels I never received it.Report


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