By Dave Williams and Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Oct. 24, 2014
The outcome of a Nov. 4 referendum calling for MARTA to expand into Clayton County will echo well beyond Atlanta’s southside.
The possibility of adding a new county to the transit agency’s service area for the first time since MARTA opened for business in the 1970s is being watched across the metro region, notably in Gwinnett County.
For the last five years, Gwinnett business leaders have been laying the groundwork for extending rail service beyond the existing MARTA Doraville station up the Interstate 85 corridor.
After Clayton, the former GM plant at Doraville is a strategic target for rail expansion, said Egbert Perry, founder and CEO of the Integral Group, which bought the property last month.
“We looked at the site and saw all of the above — 1/3 to 1/2 mile of frontage along [Interstate] 285 one exit from I-85, [a freight] rail [spur] inside the Perimeter [and] MARTA on the other side of the track,” Perry told a business audience Oct. 16 during a redevelopment forum sponsored by Partnership Gwinnett. “It … has more bones for multimodal than any other site in the region.”
The General Assembly considered a proposal to lift legal obstacles to MARTA extending heavy rail transit service into Gwinnett County without joining as a full partner as recently as 2011.
But Clayton County moved to the forefront of MARTA’s expansion planning after the county’s bus system, C-Tran, went out of business.
“Clayton is the biggest county in the region that doesn’t have transit,” said Robbie Ashe, MARTA’s board chairman. “It’s a county that desperately needs transit. … This gives them the opportunity to join a system that’s already mature and robust without an initiation fee.”
Ashe said he’s “cautiously optimistic” Clayton voters will approve the referendum to levy a penny sales tax to support bringing MARTA into the county.
MARTA buses would begin serving Clayton in March, when the county would start collecting the tax.
But Ashe said the ultimate plan is to bring MARTA rail into Clayton County, preferably through an agreement with Norfolk Southern Corp. to share the freight carrier’s tracks. He said such a deal would save on construction costs and allow MARTA to offer commuter rail service inside Clayton, making it Georgia’s first commuter rail line.
If MARTA can’t reach an agreement with Norfolk Southern, Ashe said, the alternative would be a bus rapid transit system, essentially buses that operate in dedicated lanes.
Ashe said he hopes the Clayton referendum passes by a large margin to send a strong message to the rest of the region that voters now believe MARTA finally has its fiscal house in order under the leadership of General Manager Keith Parker.
“For several decades, the news about MARTA and our budget has not been good,” Ashe said. “We’ve balanced our budget the last two years and added to our reserves. … We’re a deserving investment partner.”
In the early 1990s, Gwinnett County voters soundly rejected bringing MARTA rail into the county.
But Ashe said straw votes on transit taken in the two party primaries in Gwinnett back in 2008 left him encouraged that times are changing. While only 37 percent of voters in Gwinnett’s Republican primary that summer said they would be willing to pay an additional penny sales tax to extend MARTA past Doraville, 70 percent of Democratic primary voters supported the proposal.
Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash is not so sure.
Gwinnett voters most likely to support rail live in the densely populated cities in south Gwinnett, she said. But 75 percent of the population lives in the rural, unincorporated areas of the county.
“I think the conversation is moving” Nash said. “But south Gwinnett is not all of Gwinnett.”
Looking to its economic future, Perry said Gwinnett will need transit if the county is to prosper.
“All the Millennials care about is connections between great destinations,” he said. “You can’t do that in an area that’s totally auto-dependent. … Embrace transit, and I think Gwinnett will do well.
Dave Williams is a staff writer with the Atlanta Business Chronicle.