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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.