After Another Failed MARTA Vote, Proponents Still See Gwinnett Transit As Inevitable
For MARTA, the third time still was not the charm in its efforts to expand into Gwinnett County. But the county's business community and transit advocates insist there will a fourth time, and a fifth time if necessary.
The county's gradual demographic shift away from a predominantly white and conservative enclave into one that is both more multicultural and left-leaning means it is destined to approve mass transit inside its borders, some experts contend.
The March 19 referendum to add a 1-cent sales tax to Gwinnett's 6% base to fund transit failed 54% to 46%, with fewer than 100,000 of Gwinnett's voters turning out to the polls on a clear, nearly spring day.
The package would have funded not only the expansion of heavy rail into the county, but also expanding bus service and a rapid bus network, all controlled by MARTA.
“Older, whiter voters came out in much greater numbers and in an election that was really designed for opponents of the MARTA referendum,” said Robert Howard, the executive director of the Southern Political Science Association. The association is part of Georgia State University's political science department, where Howard also is a professor.
But there was more to the vote than the same old Gwinnett politics. While this is the third time Gwinnett voters have rejected MARTA expansion — they did so in 1971 and again in 1990 — the demographics of the county have dramatically changed.
The county's population swelled from 352,900 people in 1990 to nearly 1 million residents in 2017. During that same period, Gwinnett's white population's majority declined from 89% to 54%.
This has had a major effect in political affiliation within the county. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the county by six points. Last year, Stacey Abrams carried the county in her bid for the governor's office by more than 14 points. Ultimately, Republican Brian Kemp secured the governor's mansion.
University of Georgia Professor of Political Science Charles Bullock said that swing is a clear indication that Republican's hold on the county is tenuous at best. And in an election that draws out many more voters, more progressive candidates and initiatives may carry the day.
“If they do have it scheduled to coincide with the general election in November, it would probably pass,” Bullock said. "It would have probably passed last November."
MARTA expansion backers still found some good news wrapped into Tuesday's vote, said Paige Havens, a spokesperson for the pro-transit advocacy group Go Gwinnett. The win by opponents was much narrower than in 1990, when 70% of Gwinnett voters rejected MARTA expansion.
“We are while disappointed in this ultimate decision in the vote, we are super excited that we narrowed the gap,” Havens said.
How It Failed
The get-out-the-vote efforts succeeded more for the grassroots resistance than the funding of groups like Go Gwinnett, which had the support of some key state leaders, including former Gov. Nathan Deal, the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, Abrams and conservative radio talk show host Erick Erickson.
A Facebook group opposing the expansion gained traction, as did websites such as MARTAHoax.com, run by Gwinnett resident Joe Newton, who has been a vocal opponent to the referendum. Unlike in 1990, when the undercurrent of opposition was based much on race and crime concerns, according to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, opponents this time have a laundry list of reasons why they wanted to thwart MARTA efforts into Gwinnett, many of which focused on some uncertainty regarding the financing beyond the 1-cent sales tax.
“The sales tax is the biggest thing,” Judy Demaree Bailey said. "And the fact that it doesn't ever go away, and the system will never be self-sustaining."
Bailey, a retired engineer who is active with the Gwinnett Republican Party, said the sales tax hike would be negatively felt by affluent and poor alike on everything from food to appliances and vehicles.
She also holds the view that technology in transportation is changing rapidly and may be the better answer to congestion than expensive heavy rail.
“When they say, 'Hey, you can take the train, you can read a book, you can relax. But autonomous cars are coming," she said. "You can put your feet up, you can read a book, you don't have to pay attention. So I think [heavy rail is] going to be outdated soon. Everybody's going to have an autonomous car.”
Ackerman & Co. Retail President Leo Wiener, who owns retail properties near Gwinnett Place Mall and is chairman of the Gwinnett Place CID, said thoughts of roads being the ultimate saving grace for congestion are myopic.
“I don't think you can have a county with a million people or more and have one artery — I-85 — be sufficient to get people in and out of the county,” Wiener said. “If you've driven down [Peachtree Industrial Boulevard], Buford Highway in the morning. [You've] got to be brain-dead to think that's the solution.”
In the short term, it's unclear what effect the referendum will have on Gwinnett's economy. The redevelopment plans around the proposed transit station in Norcross may be harder to kick-start. But the larger issue is whether, at a time when big companies are open about wanting to locate around MARTA stations, Gwinnett gets overlooked.
Gateway85 Community Improvement District Executive Director Marsha Anderson Bomar said it is too hard to gauge just how many companies may cross Gwinnett off their lists of counties to locate new offices or other facilities.
“It's hard to put a number on it, because a lot of times the decisions are made to not look at a place like Gwinnett before they even begin looking at us,” Bomar said.
But a lack of transit will be a factor.
“When it comes to crane development … meaning office development, where the jobs are, it's all about the HR department,” Wiener said. "And most of them have a check box about mass transit. That's going to be a short-term impact."
The next steps are unclear as the smoke clears from Tuesday's defeat. Still, proponents say another vote in some form is only a matter of time.
“As you might expect, I am disappointed, but transit expansion is so critical to Gwinnett's future that doing nothing is not acceptable,” Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash wrote in an email. “The Board of Commissioners will be considering all possible options and making decisions about next steps. The board has not had a chance to consider any of the next steps, so it is premature for me to speculate on any specifics, including the date for a possible referendum.”
Bomar blamed a lack of an educational push with county voters as to what was at stake and details of the agreement for the referendum's defeat.
“There were just a lot of people who didn't take the time to get the facts. They were just persuaded by stories that were told that weren't true by people who didn't want this to pass,” Bomar said. "It tells me that the education piece didn't reach a lot of people it needed to reach."
Gateway85's district covers portions of Jimmy Carter Boulevard in Norcross, including the OFS facility overlooking I-85, which was slated to be the main heavy rail station for MARTA in Gwinnett.
Bomar contends that the loss is a temporary one, and that ultimately, voters will likely approve some form of a mass transit system in the future.
“I think people who are investing in the area have a long-term vision, not a short-term vision. So I think there's a short pause, perhaps,” she said. “But I think everybody in the area believes the day is coming when this type of system will exist, so I don't think it's going to have a long-term negative impact.”
Howard said that has everything to do with sweeping demographic changes in Gwinnett and other suburban counties, not only with the influx of more people of color, but also by millennials, many of whom support and even prefer alternative transportation methods beyond cars.
“Everybody knows what's happening in Gwinnett,” he said. "It's inevitable."