Transit advocates suffered a significant setback Tuesday in their effort to expand bus and rail service throughout the Atlanta region. A referendum to expand transit in Gwinnett County failed in a special election, but many hope that the defeat will only be temporary.
“The main thing now is to choose the right date for the next referendum,” says Gwinnett Commission Chair Charlotte Nash, a Republican who supported the measure to join MARTA, the Atlanta area’s mass transit authority.
The proposal would have raised Gwinnett’s sales tax by one percentage point to pay for increased services.
Nash had supported placing the transit referendum in March, instead of last November as many Democrats and transit advocates had urged. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that state GOP leaders wanted the vote pushed back in order to help endangered Republicans on the ballot in 2018.) But pushing the vote to March, a lower-turnout election day, may have doomed the measure.
The initiative failed, with 54 percent of voters opposed and 46 percent in favor. Opposition was strongest in the farther-out reaches of the county and among older white voters.
Supporters tried to overcome the resistance in more conservative neighborhoods by focusing on get-out-the-vote efforts in areas seen as friendlier to the MARTA expansion. In the end, though, turnout was strongest in the outlying areas.
This is the third time since the 1970s that Gwinnett County voters have rejected a plan to join MARTA, but a lot has changed since they last considered the question in 1990.
The county’s population has nearly tripled since then -- to 920,000 people. The political make-up of the once reliable Republican area has shifted too: Hillary Clinton carried the county in the 2016 presidential election, and Democrat Stacey Abrams won it in last year’s gubernatorial race.
The Atlanta region’s long antipathy toward transit has also softened. MARTA, a long-beleaguered agency that chronically faced financial difficulties, has shored up its finances and has begun attracting new riders. Originally envisioned as a five-county system, MARTA only operated in two counties at the center of the Atlanta metropolis, until 2014, when voters in Clayton County, south of Atlanta, voted to join the system. Gwinnett County would have been the fourth county in MARTA’s jurisdiction, had the referendum passed.
If the Gwinnett measure passed on Tuesday, Streetsblog, which advocates for transportation alternatives to cars, predicted that Cobb County, the fifth county in the original plan, would have followed by holding its own referendum on joining MARTA.
The plan that went before voters Tuesday would have extended an existing MARTA subway line 4.5 miles into Gwinnett County. The transit agency would have also taken over the county’s existing bus service and expanded it, including the introduction of rapid bus service.
But many of those services would have most benefitted the areas of the county closest to the city of Atlanta. And even then, they would take years and sometimes decades to materialize.
Organizers depended on enthusiastic support from black and Hispanic residents in the county, but they discovered that wasn’t a given.
“We cannot assume that just because someone is young or a minority, they support public transit,” Fredrick Hicks, the campaign manager for the transit referendum campaign of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, told the Los Angeles Times. “Minorities who choose to live in Gwinnett often move there for lower taxes and for the same reason that others do: They don’t want to be in the city.”
Abrams founded the New Georgia Project Action Fund last year to register new voters, at the same time she was running for governor. She supported the Gwinnett County MARTA expansion.
But a number of Republicans backed the measure, too. Former Gov. Nathan Deal was on board, as was the Republican chairman of the state Senate’s transportation committee.
The most surprising endorsement, though, may have been the one from conservative pundit Erick Erickson, who became a nationally recognized activist when he was CEO of the RedState blog.
“The demographics are shifting whether you believe it or not,” he said. “If Republicans are going to have any say about mass transit in Gwinnett, this is the time to approve it. If you don’t do it now, it’s going to come back. If you want to be a part of the conversation in how the county embraces the future, vote yes on Tuesday. It’s time to support something like this. The alternative is 20 mph commutes both ways.”
Gov. Brian Kemp, Abrams’ opponent in last year’s election, did not publicly take a side on the Gwinnett referendum.