By Maggie Lee
Early voting is about two weeks off in a Gwinnett referendum that a county leader says is on a par with county decisions two generations ago on water and sewer.
Gwinnett voters are getting a yes-or-no question: should there be a penny sales tax to pay for much expanded transit, including heavy rail?
MARTA would operate it, subject to oversight from Gwinnett.
As it happens, Gwinnett spent last year marking its 200th birthday.
“I think this is the biggest decision of this third century of Gwinnett,” said Gwinnett County Commission Chair Charlotte Nash, speaking at a public forum Sunday.
“It’s much like the decision that was made in the 70s to invest in water and sewer. I can’t imagine being in Gwinnett County without being able to depend on a good water and sewer system,” she said.
She was speaking at a bar-and-event space at Eagle Rock Distributing Company, a beer, wine and liquor distributor in Norcross, right in the heart of an area where a lot of trucks and people are trying to get around. The forum was organized by Advance Atlanta, a nonprofit that aims to get younger metro Atlantans involved in decision-making across the region. The young organization is working on becoming a voice for education about the possibilities of transit.
Nash said that she started to see support for transit and demand for transit, a population getting near one million, and freight moving around places like Norcross. So that’s why she spent time looking at transit and eventually negotiating this MARTA contract that’s now before voters.
With Nash was Robbie Ashe, formerly MARTA’s board chair and still its board treasurer. He also said Gwinnett’s at a once-in-a-generation choice, about like the state was when it decided to build Georgia 400 northward from Buckhead into what was then still kind of a rural area.
He said years ago, the complaint from communities was that if they wanted any MARTA at all, they wanted it walled off. But now, companies like State Farm look for places where they can be integrated into transit, they want to offer their employees a way to stay off the roads.
“Companies like that, at the C-suite level, they know that relocating near train stations is an increasingly non-negotiable part of where they’re making site decisions,” said Ashe.
Also handing out brochures, buttons and information at the event were folks from Go Gwinnett, an organization drawn mainly from the business community that’s working for a “yes” vote.
Whether a “yes” vote happens will depend on how many people like Jessica Rantamaki cast a ballot. She works at an engineering firm that just opened a branch in Lawrenceville. She said she puts 300 miles on her car some weeks for work. She said it would be great if the company could offer the option of transit.
“The stress of being on these roads is a nightmare,” said the New York City native. She said she feels safer on public transit and already takes it when ever she can.
But a recent poll of 960 “routine” Gwinnett voters showed 48 percent ready to vote against the MARTA deal. About 41.5 percent were in favor, and the rest undecided. The poll, done by cell phone and land line on Feb. 4 has a 3.1-point margin of error. Read much more here from the AJC.
At the very end of the forum, a member of the audience asked Nash what happens if it doesn’t pass.
“If it doesn’t happen on March 19, then we’ve got to come back and look at other ways to approach it,” she said. “I’m telling you, the thought of having another half-million people in this county without additional transportation options, if there’s anything to keep me up at night, that would be one of them.”
Advance voting begins on Feb. 25. Check Gwinnett’s special election schedule for more details on locations and hours.