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Gwinnett County rejects MARTA transit expansion. Here’s the early reaction

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Majority of voting Gwinnettians decline (for now) historic opportunity to add rail service and beef up bus lines

The view from the front car of a MARTA train, looking down the tracks that hang over parking lots.
All aboard Gwinnett-bound MARTA rail? Not for now.
Moment Editorial/Getty Images

Once again, Gwinnett has said “no thanks” to welcoming MARTA transit services across county lines.

Home to some 900,000 people and growing, Georgia’s second most populous county decisively voted against expanding Atlanta’s transportation agency into Gwinnett in Tuesday’s closely watched referendum, the first since 1990.

That’s despite substantial grassroots get-out-the-vote efforts and bipartisan backing from places as disparate as the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, the Georgia Sierra Club, and longstanding Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway.

The unofficial count ... No: 49,936. Yes: 41,985.

Gwinnett’s initial rejection of MARTA came at the agency’s inception in the early 1970s. Tuesday’s outcome marks the third “no.”

Nonetheless, some regional leaders exuded optimism in the wake of the referendum’s defeat, calling it a temporary setback. AJC political columnist Jim Galloway wrote recently that Gwinnett transit is basically inevitable and that Democrats will likely push for another vote in 2020.

The measure put to voters Tuesday would have seen a one-cent sales tax increase over the next four decades, beginning April 1. Bus service in Gwinnett would have increased within weeks and eventually doubled, with the addition of Express routes, bus rapid transit (BRT) routes, and Sunday service. The outlook on heavy rail finally breaching Gwinnett was estimated at 15 to 20 years.

Upon hearing the unofficial vote tally at 10:45 p.m. Tuesday, Gwinnett’s most powerful political, commission chairwoman Charlotte Nash, reportedly embraced former MARTA board chairman Robbie Ashe and told WSB Radio: “This is a pause, not an end.”

A more downcast tone came from the populace:

On the other hand, this sentiment hasn’t exactly been uncommon:

A precinct breakdown compiled by the AJC shows that, in general, more urbanized areas along major traffic corridors supported the measure—while more affluent or rural areas roundly declined MARTA’s services.

Within a couple hours of Gwinnett’s voting being tabulated, transit advocates Beltline Rail Now issued a statement expressing disappointment that “our neighbors in Gwinnett County again turned their backs on MARTA” and calling for the transit-expansion focus to turn to communities that clearly want it.

“It’s time to start work on rail projects like the Beltline, where trains run separated from traffic,” reads the statement. “It’s time to start building new stations to connect those projects to today’s MARTA lines. And it’s time to find new ways to link other MARTA communities to the metro core.”

Added Cathy Woolard, a Beltline Rail Now cofounder and former city council president: “New people are already pouring into Atlanta, and we need a way to get around town that doesn’t leave us wasting valuable time in gridlock ... Let’s build transit that will get people moving and show others why they want to be part of it.”

Curbed Atlanta

With a similarly optimistic tone, Doug Hooker, Atlanta Regional Commission executive director, pointed to signs of momentum for transit in the region, ranging from State Farm’s massive, rail-connected expansion at the Perimeter, MARTA’s potential $2.7-billion boost approved by Atlanta voters, and even Douglas County’s efforts to launch its first bus system.

An annual public opinion survey conducted by the ARC, as Hooker noted, has shown that attitudes about transit have changed in metro Atlanta, including Gwinnett.

For instance, when 5,500 people were polled across 13 metro Atlanta counties in 2017, more than half (51 percent) said they’d be willing to pay extra taxes to expand transit options.

“This vote is far from the end of the line for transit expansion in this important, fast-growing part of the Atlanta region,” Hooker said in a prepared statement issued to Curbed Atlanta. “I’m optimistic about the future.”