Gwinnett County voters could decide this fall whether to join MARTA if the General Assembly approves a transit bill in coming weeks.
House Bill 930 would allow 13 metro Atlanta counties to hold transit sales tax votes beginning in 2019. But it includes a special provision allowing Gwinnett to vote on joining MARTA this year.
MARTA has been a dirty word in Gwinnett politics for decades, and county voters have twice rejected proposals to join the regional transit system. Some political leaders believe MARTA remains widely unpopular.
But explosive growth and hundreds of thousands of new residents in recent decades have meant changing attitudes about mass transit. In November, an Atlanta Regional Commission survey found 56 percent of Gwinnett residents were willing to pay higher taxes to expand mass transit.
A lot would need to happen before a vote could be scheduled. HB 930, or something like it, would need to pass the full General Assembly this year. The Gwinnett Board of Commissioners would have to call for a vote, and MARTA and its participating local governments would need to sign off on Gwinnett joining the system.
Gwinnett Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said county officials have not decided to pursue a vote to join MARTA.
“The language that is in the bill provides an option that Gwinnett may or may not utilize,” Nash told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “If the language survives (the legislative process), it will be up to the entire Board of Commissioners to decide how and when to proceed.”
The Gwinnett provision is part of a sweeping bill that could pave the way for transit expansions across metro Atlanta. It would provide tens of millions of dollars annually in state funding for transit projects, and potentially hundreds of millions of dollars more from local transit sales taxes that could be authorized under the bill.
Under HB 930, counties that want to call a sales tax vote would need the approval of a new transit board created by the legislation. The board would put together a regional transit plan and coordinate projects across the 13 counties.
But the board would not be established until next January, meaning the soonest other counties could hold a vote would be 2019.
Gwinnett is finishing work on a mass transit plan and has been building toward a November referendum on a specific list of projects that has yet to be unveiled. Under HB 930, the county’s only option for a transit vote this year would be to join MARTA.
The alternative: Gwinnett, like other counties, could wait until next year or, more likely, 2020 to hold a transit referendum that does not involve joining MARTA.
MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe said that, if the bill becomes law, “that just starts the conversation” about whether Gwinnett should join the transit system.
“That said, for the proponents of regional transit, it is a very exciting development,” Ashe said.
Gwinnett is one of the five counties – along with Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton and Cobb – that were included in the original legislation creating the regional transit system in 1965.
But in 1971 Gwinnett voters rejected a 1 percent sales tax to pay for the transit system. They rejected MARTA again in 1990.
Wayne Mason was an influential Gwinnett land mogul and was chairman of the county commission from 1977 to 1981. He said he believes today’s Gwinnett voters would favor transit expansion.
“I knew it wasn’t going to pass in 1990,” Mason told the AJC last week. “It was all about MARTA. MARTA was such a racial deal. Today, people have that out of their mind.”
Gwinnett has indeed changed dramatically since it last voted down joining Atlanta’s transit agency.
Back then, Gwinnett had about 350,000 residents, 90 percent of whom were white. Today, roughly 60 percent of the county’s more than 900,000 residents are black, Latino or Asian. Nearly a quarter are foreign born.
The county also voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016’s presidential election – the first time it had selected a Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
“MARTA has made incredible strides with their brand and operation and, based on historical (Gwinnett Chamber and Great Exchange) and recent (Gwinnett County) polling, a MARTA referendum would pass,” said Lawrenceville City Manager Chuck Warbington.
Some political leaders doubt a MARTA referendum would be successful. County Commissioner John Heard of Lawrenceville believes a transit measure could pass – as long as it’s not MARTA.
“I believe the voters would reject, as they have in the past, a regional transit solution,” Heard said. “I hear over and over that no one wants Gwinnett tax dollars going inside the perimeter.”
Commissioner Lynette Howard, who represents the Norcross and Peachtree Corners areas, was less certain. She thinks Gwinnett is ready, at the very least, to “look at all sorts of options” — real, tangible, specific ideas — before making a decision.
On Friday afternoon, young couple Shakil Thomas and Arianna Hamilton-Bennett were walking through downtown Norcross with their baby.
They live in Peachtree Corners now, but Thomas said he used to have a sort of reverse commute from the Atlanta into Gwinnett. Hamilton-Bennett recently moved down from Cincinnati. Both said they’d support more transit options.
“There haven’t been as many options in Gwinnett as there are, you know, in the Atlanta area,” Thomas said. “I’m in favor. It’s about time.”
The traffic in the area is “just overwhelming,” Hamilton-Bennett said. “You can turn a 20-minute commute into 45 minutes or an hour.”
Lilburn resident Sammye Banker was less enthusiastic about the need for MARTA or, frankly, transit of any kind.
“Because I’ve got a car,” she said.
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