1 Year Later in Gwinnett: Another Public Transit Referendum

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MARTA Train Station Photograph by Myrydd Wells

This year in November, residents in Gwinnett will not only have the chance to choose which presidential candidate to elect, but also a chance to decide in a referendum whether to invest in a tax-funded public transit expansion.

Last year in March 2019, Gwinnett hosted a special, off-season referendum that posed the same question to the county’s residents regarding a 38-year 1% sales tax to fund an expansion of MARTA public transit projects. With a vote of 54% to 46%, residents voted no on MARTA. 

Though residents approach a referendum that outlines a transit plan similar to the one offered in 2019, it isn’t without its differences. The new plan dedicates the bulk of investment in BRT (bus rapid transit) lines with an added extension of a heavy rail line from the Doraville MARTA station to Jimmy Carter Boulevard. 

In short, the new plan cuts down on heavy rail (the original long-term plan was for the rail to extend to Gwinnett Place Mall), adds more bus routes, and outlines a more aggressive first 10-year implementation design. Additionally, though the new plan keeps the 1% sales tax, it decreases the duration of the tax to last for only 30 years instead of 38. 

The biggest difference is that the previous plan intended for the county to completely join MARTA which already runs through Fulton, Dekalb, and Clayton Counties. Now, however, the only part of the expansion in Gwinnett that will be connected to and run by MARTA is the heavy rail line (under state law, the only system authorized to run heavy rail lines is MARTA). The rest of the expansions and new BRT lines will be run exclusively by Gwinnett and the contractors Gwinnett hires. 

Whether these changes are for the better or not, Gwinnett residents will have the topic of public transit at the forefront of local issues to pay attention to this year. When the 2019 referendum failed, many public transit supporters agreed that the timing had been a major factor for the received outcome in that referendum. 

Originally, the plan had been to put the referendum on the 2018 gubernatorial ballot, but because of political opposition and complications, it had been placed on an off-season election during March. As a result, it generated low voter turnout. According to a report from the Gwinnett Daily Post, a total of only about 92,000 citizens out of Gwinnett’s population of over 936,000 (2), voted in the referendum. 

In addition, county leaders and experts agree that public transit is critical for the sustained growth of Gwinnett. With Gwinnett’s already large population, the 2nd most populous in the state, it will only continue to grow larger with an estimated influx of over half a million people in the coming decades (3). 

To support such a large county population, and advance the potential economic flourish it can bring, the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce argues that an “expanded transit system, including heavy rail, will help attract businesses and residents to Gwinnett and encourage those already there to stay (4).” 

That is why almost immediately after the failed 2019 referendum, the Gwinnett County Transit Review Committee was established to analyze the previous MARTA transit plans and create a proposal that would recommend the best options for the county. After their proposal was submitted and approved in January of 2020, much of the rest of the year was spent negotiating and mediating the approval of another potential public transit referendum. Finally, on July 21, the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners gave their approval for such a referendum to be placed right on the presidential ballot on November 3rd, which is believed will allow for a bigger, more representational vote of the county.

However one has to wonder about the decision of placing the referendum on the 2020 ballot, especially with current events such as the coronavirus pandemic negatively affecting the economy and causing millions of Americans around the country to lose their jobs. With the referendum asking for residents’ approval on a tax increase during a recession, there’s no telling what the outcome will be, even with the extra exposure the referendum will gain from being placed on the presidential ballot. Ultimately, the citizens of Gwinnett will have to wait and see.