By Maria Saporta
Despite the MARTA referendum loss in Gwinnett County on March 19, county and transportation leaders stand firm on the need to bring transit to Georgia’s second largest county.
“Regardless of the way the vote went in March, there is so much need for transit and mobility relief in Gwinnett,” said Charlotte Nash, chair of the Gwinnett County Commission, who announced earlier this month that would not be seeking re-election in November 2020. “Transit and transportation, in general, are right on top of my list of priorities that I want to see forward movement before I leave office.”
Nash was one of several leaders from Gwinnett on last week’s LINK trip to Pittsburgh, Pa.
Others on the trip of more than 110 metro Atlanta leaders included Jeff Parker, the general manager and CEO of MARTA; Freda Hardage, chair of MARTA’s board; and Chris Tomlinson, executive director of the ATL, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and the State Road and Tollway Authority.
Perhaps the strongest statement came from Daniel Kaufman, retiring president and CEO of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce.
“We are dead in the water until we pass a transit referendum,” Kaufman said in an interview during the LINK trip. “Gwinnett is going to add 400,000 people between now and 2040, which in public policy terms is like the day after tomorrow. How are we going to accommodate the needs of a community of 1.4 million people without more transportation alternatives and enhanced connectivity to the metro region?”
Kaufman said Gwinnett’s lack of transit was one of the reasons the county lost two Fortune 500 companies – NCR and WestRock.
“You don’t know who you lost because you aren’t even invited to the party,” Kaufman said. “Companies used to go to where the CEO wanted to live. Now they are going to where the talent wants to live. We won’t be able to attract a talented young workforce that we need to continue to grow without having enhanced transportation alternatives. Hence we will not be able to attract the high-tech, high-paying jobs that we want to attract to Gwinnett.”
Nick Masino, who will succeed Kaufman as CEO of the Gwinnett Chamber and has been heading up its economic development efforts for years, said the county continues to attract a high number of prospects and post strong job gains.
Still, Masino recognizes that transit is an important amenity for the future.
“The business community was disappointed in the transit funding referendum,” Masino said. “It would have given us an additional arrow in our economic development recruitment quiver. Thanks to a first-class, global workforce and quality of life, Gwinnett still leads the region in job and population growth. A successful transit referendum will help secure an even brighter future.”
In conversations with transportation and Gwinnett leaders during the LINK trip, there’s widespread agreement that the need for transit has not gone away.
But no one is ready to say when a referendum will be presented to voters.
Nash said she does not want to get out in front of her board of commissioners, two of whom were not on the commission when the plan was approved last year.
“I don’t see a way for transit in Gwinnett to be successful without there being links to MARTA,” Nash said. “Both of the new commissioners mentioned that in their campaigns. They did not run on a platform that was opposed to transit or to a particular provider.”
Gwinnett will present its transit plan to the ATL in the summer, but that doesn’t preclude possibly changing the plan that was presented to voters in March.
“I think it’s a very good plan,” Nash said. “But I definitely think it’s important enough to have a public conversation on all aspects of the plan.”
MARTA’s Jeff Parker said it’s just a matter of time.
“A lack of alternatives is going to hamper the growth of any county or region,” Parker said. “That’s today’s reality. The first step is for the Gwinnett Commission to process what its next steps will be.”
MARTA Chair Freda Hardage said she was not involved in the original negotiation with Gwinnett.
“Charlotte and I talk all the time,” she said. “Both sides are open to negotiations. I don’t think there’s any question that everybody wants to make it work.”
Parker agreed. “I think both sides are committed to getting something done,” he said.
The ATL’s Chris Tomlinson said his relatively new organization will adopt a transit plan, and he said Gwinnett’s plans already are in good shape. But the ATL is not about creating winners and losers. In fact, Gwinnett still can enter into a contract directly with MARTA. “MARTA is a critical component of this region’s network,” Tomlinson said.
As to the timing of a referendum on transit, it’s generally accepted that a special election is not the best time to pass a referendum. The next two major elections will be the presidential primary next spring or the general election in November.
Nash, who has been called a “reformed transit skeptic,” prefers to think of herself as someone who is “practical.”
Meanwhile, Kaufman said the county also has evolved.
“As the community has continued to grow and change, the population has understood the need for enhanced transportation alternatives,” said Kaufman, who has lived in the county since 2006 when he became the charter president of Georgia Gwinnett College. “It continues to grow. And I’m confident we will get the transit question right.”
The county’s economic vitality depends on it. For example, Gwinnett was one of the communities that was part of Georgia’s submission to Amazon.
If Amazon had decided to come to Atlanta, Kaufman said he Gwinnett would have been a longshot based on the company’s preferences.
As Kaufman said: “Given what we know about how Amazon made its decision, it’s reasonable to assume that our lack of transit was a significant issue.”