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After MARTA Defeat, New Gwinnett Chairman Going Back To Drawing Board

The Gwinnett County Commission will have a new chairman next month, but the woman who will hold the county's top post will start her term knowing voters rejected her preferred plan to expand transit into the fast-growing Atlanta suburb.

It is unlikely county residents will be asked to vote on another transit referendum, and a corresponding sales tax increase, in two years after this year's measure lost by a thin margin, incoming Gwinnett Commission Chairman Nicole Love Hendrickson told Bisnow last week.

That also means one of the potential uses for the OFS Brightwave facility off Jimmy Carter Boulevard, which the county purchased in late 2018 for more than $32M, is off the table for now as well.

Incoming Gwinnett County Commission Chair Nicole Love Hendrickson says it's time to take another look at proposed transportation plans.

The referendum called for a penny sales tax increase for 30 years to raise more than $12B to expand Gwinnett County's transit system. Gwinnett voters voted against the tax by just over 1,000 votes on Nov. 3. Hendrickson, who beat her Republican challenger, David Post, on Election Day, will succeed Chairwoman Charlotte Nash on Dec. 28.

“At this point, the citizens have spoken. We have to listen to what the citizens are saying,” Hendrickson said. "I think we have to take a step back first and examine what we proposed."

Ackerman & Co. Retail President Leo Wiener said the county needs to study the reasons why the latest effort failed before pushing for another referendum, especially since Democrats — the party backing the MARTA tax — earned more votes overall than Republicans this year.

Proponents were confident the latest transit referendum would pass, given Gwinnett's increased population and demographic shifts and the vote occurring in a general presidential election, which would draw many more voters than off-year or special elections. But those factors failed to turn the tide.

"I think a deep dive is really necessary before we come back,” said Wiener, who also is chairman of the Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District and a commercial real estate owner in the county. “Being that close to me is a huge upset and not at all expected.”

MARTA heavy rail at the North Avenue Station in Atlanta.

Most agree that transit in some form is needed in Gwinnett, the second-most-populous county in Georgia with more than 900,000 residents. By 2040, experts project that the county's population could reach 1.5 million.

But the coronavirus pandemic has created a sea change in the views of working from home and commuting to an office, and that could influence demand for transit moving forward.

“We also have to look at how COVID is impacting that congestion, how teleworking and how companies are now pivoting to address this teleworking space,” Hendrickson said.

“There are also other possibilities and factors that we should consider: like the impact telecommuting will have on congestion, and we should also look at the future of technological advances in transit, like connected and autonomous vehicles, which offer promise on how we move around and connect throughout the county,” Hendrickson wrote in a follow-up email.

Wiener said the pandemic's influence on commuting patterns is something to be considered. But transit projects, especially heavy rail, are long-term investments that could take close to a decade to complete. And Gwinnett's growth projections are not likely to change in a post-pandemic world.

“Pre-pandemic, it was on everybody's checklist. But do [companies] want it now? Or is Microsoft and others saying, 'Oh gee, you can go live in the lower cost of living place like Gwinnett.' I think it's still too early to know,” Wiener said. “What's not going to change is the county is growing and projected to grow, and congestion on the streets is going to grow.”

This is the fourth time in history that Gwinnett residents rejected the expansion of MARTA into the county. In addition to the 2019 referendum, voters also rejected rail proposals in 1971 and 1990.

There could be many reasons for the referendum's loss in this election. It was among two penny sales tax measures being voted on. The other, a penny sales tax to fund public school projects, was a renewal of an existing sales tax, but Hendrickson said that may have been confusing to voters. She also said the referendum being so far down the ballot may have failed to gain voters' attention.

“We're in a pandemic. And people are struggling, we're recovering from a recession. The thought of having extra taxes put on your property tax bill or even your sales tax bill, it didn't appease everybody,” Hendrickson said. “It was just timing.”

The OFS corporate sign in front of its Norcross facility overlooking Interstate 85

While it was to be independently run, the county had a provision to run heavy MARTA rail from Doraville to the Jimmy Carter Boulevard corridor, possibly at a planned multimodal hub at the OFS facility.

“We knew the referendum would be close,” Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District Executive Director Joe Allen wrote in an email to Bisnow. “I’m hopeful that mobility options will continue to be a top of mind issue for the newly elected Commissioners and a solution will be presented that Gwinnettians can fully support sometime in the future.”

Hendrickson said the loss of the transit measure may mean the county commission will need to be choosy on what projects it approves, including possibly revisiting the nearly two-year-old Gwinnett 2040 Unified Plan, a consolidated vision for the future of the county's growth that tied together a proposed comprehensive transportation plan, housing, economic development and land use, including identifying high-density and lower-density areas and expected growth patterns.

“Managing the growth of our county is very important to me and will be critical for our future. We will have to revisit our Unified Plan which many of the policies in the plan aim to aid in the growth of our county,” she said in an email. “We would have to take a look at a redevelopment model that includes more urban environments and we already have the infrastructure along the I-85 corridor to support this model.”

While one potential use for the OFS facility is off the table for now, county officials say the 2018 purchase was never solely about transit, but more about holding a prime parcel for economic development in county control. County officials said lease payments from OFS, which continues to operate at the facility, as well as film and television production use there, will help the county meet the debt service moving forward.

“I am not sure the source of the idea that we acquired this property as a site for a transit hub,” Nash said. “The possibility of using a portion of the property for a transit facility was a side benefit, not the fundamental purpose for purchasing over 100 acres at a critical gateway to Gwinnett.”