By Maria Saporta
By any measure, Charlotte Nash is a poster child of Gwinnett County.
She has lived her entire 65 years in Gwinnett, one of the few among the county’s 920,260 residents as of a year ago. When she was born, Gwinnett had fewer than 40,000 residents.
Nash now serves as board chair of the Gwinnett County Commission. Over the years, she has had a front-row seat to view changes in the county, one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation over the last 30 years.
Before being elected the commission’s board chair, Nash worked for Gwinnett County government for more than 27 years, retiring as the county’s administrator in 2004.
In a lengthy telephone interview, Nash spoke about how both she and the county’s residents have evolved on their views of transit over the decades. She also spoke convincingly that Gwinnett is ready to embrace MARTA – whether a referendum is held in November or March.
Last Wednesday, the Gwinnett Commission voted 4-to-1 to enter into a contract with MARTA (Commissioner Tommy Hunter was the one “no” vote).
Even more significantly, the commission voted unanimously to put a referendum before voters in a special election March 19, 2019. Voters will be asked to approve a one-cent MARTA sales tax to increase transit services to Georgia’s second most populated county after Fulton County.
“I have progressed on this,” said Nash, who insisted she has never been anti-transit (helping launch Gwinnett bus service when she was county administrator. But she acknowledged that she was more supportive of transit than people realized. “I was further along than I was signaling publicly because I wanted the community conversation to take place.”
So what has changed over the years?
“We will have another half million people by 2040,” Nash said. “Part of it is the personal pain that people experience traveling around the region. I know I experience it every time I go downtown. I think there’s a lot of support for transit. There’s definitely been shift in the attitudes in the county.”
Gwinnett was one of two counties to turn MARTA down in 1971 when the transit system was approved by voters in the City of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties.
The other county to vote against MARTA in 1971 was Clayton. Interestingly enough, Clayton voted to join MARTA in November 2014, the first major geographic expansion of the regional transit agency in more than four decades.
“Obviously the Clayton move gave new energy to the idea that MARTA was looking to expand,” Nash said, adding that Gwinnett started having serious conversations with MARTA in 2015. “Keith Parker (MARTA’s former general manager) did a great job of changing the impression of MARTA. A lot of things lined up.”
Nash said she worked closely with MARTA Chairman Robbie Ashe, and MARTA’s former CEO Keith Parker as well as its current CEO Jeff Parker as well as other members of the transit agency.
“We had been talking so long, we really had gotten to know each other,” said Nash, who spent much of the 2018 LINK trip to San Diego talking to Ashe and Chris Tomlinson, head of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, the State Road & Tollway Authority and the ATL, the new regional agency that was approved during the last legislative session.
Gwinnett had a choice: to enter into a contract with MARTA during 2018 or to wait until 2019 when it would have had to be part of the ATL structure.
When asked why the county picked MARTA, Nash said it was all timing.
“We are ready to go,” Nash said. “We are ready to roll, and this (MARTA contract) gives us the opportunity to move ahead.”
Nash added that she’s been in conversations with Tomlinson and that Gwinnett’s plans for transit would fit in with ATL’s vision. Tomlinson said on Monday that he was comfortable with Gwinnett entering into a contract with MARTA, where he serves as an ex-officio board member.
The big question that emerged during Gwinnett’s vote on Aug. 1 was why delay the referendum vote until March rather than during the November general election. It is widely believed that referendums have more positive outcomes during a general election rather than a special election.
For Nash, it was a matter of getting a solid majority of Gwinnett commissioners to endorse the MARTA contract and the March referendum.
“I’ve never seen it work well when you have members of the board working against an issue,” Nash said. “Compromise can work miracles sometime.”
Several news reports have pointed to the political implications involved in changing the date of the MARTA referendum from November to March.
All five members of the Gwinnett Commission are Republicans, but in recent years the county has been shifting to purple or even blue. Political observers have speculated that the two commissioners running for re-election in November preferred the MARTA referendum scheduled for March to minimize a Democratic turnout for the general election.
Nash also has recognized the political shift in Gwinnett during the 2016 presidential election. Hillary Clinton actually beat out Donald Trump in Gwinnett – 51 percent to 47 percent. At the same time, Nash defeated Democrat Jim Shealey, who had made bringing transit to Gwinnett a centerpiece of his campaign, in a 53 percent to 47 percent vote. GeorgiaPol mapped out the different results.
“It was close,” Nash acknowledged. “That’s not what changed my mind. I had to pull more votes out of Gwinnett than President Trump.”
When asked about the political dynamics on the commission on the MARTA vote, Nash simply said: “I’m just thrilled we got to the point where there was an almost unanimous vote of the board.”
And Nash is convinced the referendum can pass in March.
“I think there is enough pent up demand for transit that it will pass no matter what date the referendum is held,” Nash said.
Plus, she said she worked closely on House Bill 930 (the ATL legislation) to address possible concerns Gwinnett County residents may have had about joining MARTA.
“The money raised from the sales tax will be used for the benefit of Gwinnett,” she said. “For me, it became about the deal itself. We worked out a contract that I felt would answer the tough questions.”
In contrast to the 2012 regional transportation referendum that failed, Nash said: “The biggest difference is that this is Gwinnett-only.”
She also said it helped that the county has been working with the community over the past three years on a transportation plan.
“We are talking about projects that have gone through the community process,” Nash said. “I think people understand that transit does not have to look the same for Dacula as it does for Norcross.”
Another major motivation for Gwinnett is economic development and remaining competitive.
Two Fortune 500 companies – NCR and WestRock – moved their headquarters out of Gwinnett, partly to be closer to MARTA. Also, in the efforts to land Amazon HQ2, it was widely speculated that Gwinnett was not in the running because it did not have any sites served by rail transit.
“It’s really not so much about those giant companies as it is for businesses in general,” Nash said. “It’s about the ability for workers to get to jobs. The ability of companies having access to the work force is a critical issue. We want every competitive advantage we can get.”
For Nash, now is the right time for Gwinnett to join the MARTA system – mentioning the county’s changing demographics. “About 25 percent of our residents were born outside the United States, Nash said adding that the county is ethnically and racially diverse – a population that would be more open to MARTA and transit.
“I believe it’s the right thing to do for Gwinnett, and it’s the right time to move forward,” Nash said. “I’m very excited to see several years of work that we’ve done reach this point, and that we have approved the MARTA contract.”
The MARTA board is expected to vote on the contract with Gwinnett at its September board meeting.