By Jim Simpson
Gwinnett County is quickly becoming a political battleground. Recent visits by Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren to a Lawrenceville high school and Trump daughter/administration advisor Ivanka Trump to a Duluth UPS training facility have put the county in the national spotlight.
The March 19 transit referendum will cast an even brighter light, when residents will be asked to decide if the county will join MARTA, expanding service to the patchwork of historically mass-transit-resistant suburban communities.
Here’s exactly what’s at stake. A “yes” vote would support Gwinnett’s pending transit service contract with MARTA and a one-percent sales tax increase to pay for projects and operations at the county’s discretion. If approved, the tax would remain until 2057.
Early voting began Monday, Feb. 25 at the Gwinnett elections office (455 Grayson Highway in Lawrenceville) and will continue daily and weekends until March 15. Satellite locations will also be open. Visit gwinnettcounty.com for specifics.
There is no mention of MARTA or the tax increase on the ballot, which reads: “Gwinnett County has executed a contract for the provision of transit services dated as of August 2, 2018. Shall this contract be approved? YES__ NO__.”
The contract between the county’s Board of Commissioners and MARTA’s Board of Directors has already been approved, but will only be valid if the referendum passes.
“I’ve been here in the community all my life,” Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash recently told a group of Gwinnett voters, “so I have heard just about every concern that would be expressed over transit generally, and over contracting with MARTA specifically.” The agency’s financial stability is certainly a big concern.
MARTA has dealt with financial difficulties in the past, and as recently as 2012 was on the brink of insolvency. A former department administrator and two other employees pleaded guilty last year to participating in a false-invoice scheme that resulted in MARTA paying more than $520,000 for maintenance projects where no worked was actually performed. Other financial issues loom on the horizon as rail cars continue to age and a new labor contract takes effect, all at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Joe Newton of Norcross, who administers the No MARTA in Gwinnett Facebook page, wrote in InsiderAdvantage.com, “Bus rapid transit and express buses along I-85 are the state’s responsibility, not the people of Gwinnett. Where is the fair treatment for Gwinnett taxpayers? Gwinnett has purposely manipulated the bus system to create discontent among poor people so they will vote for this financially irresponsible plan.”
The Go Gwinnett (GoGwinnett.org) website stresses accessibility to businesses, education, and employment, to “ensure smarter growth, and make us more competitive with other counties in attracting high-wage jobs. . . . more independence and inclusion for our seniors and disabled residents. . . . greater access to education and entertainment which helps keep millennials in Gwinnett.”
Spokesman Brian Robinson commented, “This well-thought plan connects the people of Gwinnett to every other part of the county and to the rest of the region, whether they’re zooming past traffic on the way to work or avoiding the hassle of parking at a crowded concert or game.”
Murray Browne, a Decatur author and veteran MARTA rider (DownAndOutbound.com), has a love/hate relationship with the system but stresses the importance of citizens to “do their duty to reduce their carbon footprint in any way possible. The costs of climate change are far greater than a penny sales tax.”
The county is at a perplexing crossroads. Cities like Suwanee, Duluth, Sugar Hill, Buford, and Lawrenceville (with its South Lawn mixed-use project now underway) are attracting new residents with trendy urbanized living options, undoubtedly increasing population and traffic. A mass transit overhaul would likely abate this, but at what cost to residents who feel over-taxed and over-crowded already? And what about residents living closer to the perimeter and those without reliable vehicles who rely on mass transit to get to and from work?
Ultimately, as in 1971 and again in 1990, voters will determine the county’s future for the next 30-40 years.