Gwinnett could finally welcome MARTA. Here’s what you need to know.

Many suburban communities have long resisted mass transit, but this northeast metro Atlanta county could come aboard


Photograph by Marilyn Nieves via Getty Images

In a little over a week, Gwinnett residents will know whether new bus rapid transit and heavy rail lines will be added through the county and whether their county bus system will need an orange, gold, and blue makeover. On March 19, county voters will convene at the polls to answer one consequential question: Do we want MARTA?

Such a question has long polarized suburban communities. But Gwinnett County is one of 13 metro Atlanta counties recently inducted into the new regional transit agency, the ATL, so if its residents want to see their public transit network significantly bolstered over the next few decades, welcoming MARTA might just be their best bet.

Read below to learn the ins and outs of the impending vote.

How did this referendum come about?
In August, Gwinnett’s Board of Commissioners okayed an agreement with MARTA that would allow the transit agency to take hold take control of the county’s transit systems and pave the way for major expansion. The following September, MARTA’s board of directors green-lit the same deal. The primary difference between this agreement and others MARTA has signed with nearby metro counties is that it gives local officials more oversight over how collected tax dollars would be spent on transit projects, according to the Gwinnett Daily Post.

What’s the big question on the ballot, and what does it mean?
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 __

If the “ayes” win, the contract Gwinnett leaders inked with MARTA in September would be ratified. The deal would impose a 1 percent sales tax to help fund transit projects until 2057, which officials say could collect some $5 billion.

The substantial result of a “yes” majority would ultimately be a new, nearly five-mile heavy rail line linking the existing Doraville MARTA station to a to-be-developed stop on county-owned property near the intersection of Interstate-85 and Jimmy Carter Boulevard. MARTA CEO Jeff Parker said the chosen site would act as an economic catalyst for the surrounding area. “It’s really an underutilized part of the county that they’ve [bought] to make sure they do the right thing in terms of transportation and land use,” he said.

The sales tax would also help grow the county’s existing public bus network and create bus rapid transit (BRT) routes.

Who’s supporting the MARTA adoption?
People who want to embrace metro Atlanta cities’ ongoing and arguably inevitable urbanization—think increased density and economic opportunities aplenty—are thrilled to see Gwinnett residents considering the major transit step.

Additionally, regional business leaders, such as officials at State Farm’s new Dunwoody mixed-use campus, believe bringing MARTA to Gwinnett County would boost employee morale—imagine not sitting in two-plus hours of traffic each day—and make the company more marketable to potential hires.

State Farm facility manager Machelle Clarke Pellegrini said that between 12 and 15 percent of the office’s staff uses public transit, and many employees live in Gwinnett. “It would be a recruiting benefit for us to be able to bring additional people from Gwinnett County to this area,” she said. “We want happy people when they come to work, and healthy people, and there are statistics out there that show, when they can have a less stressful commute, they’re healthier, they’re happier people.”

Additionally, two longtime Gwinnett Republicans, Sheriff Butch Conway and District Attorney Danny Porter, and former Gov. Nathan Deal have voiced support for the referendum, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Who’s lobbying for a “no” vote?
MARTA CEO Jeff Parker said that the resistance to the potential transit boost hasn’t been by way of organized groups, but rather from a select few citizens.

But it seems some people, for one reason or another, don’t trust public transit to improve their quality of life. The results of a new survey conducted by WSB and Rosetta Stone Communications show that more than 51 percent of the 1,000 people polled oppose the referendum.

Historically, transit opponents have expressed concern over the prospect of Atlanta criminals using the train network to wreak havoc on their neighborhoods and make a clean getaway.

But according to MARTA Police Chief Wanda Dunham, those worries are unsubstantiated. “We have never seen somebody with a big-screen TV on MARTA,” she said. In addition to MARTA’s 460 sworn police officers, and its 15,000 surveillance cameras—in train stations, trains, streetcars, and buses, among other places—the agency has its own SWAT team and bomb squad.

“MARTA is one of the safest [transit] systems, and it always has been, but the perception is what we deal with,” Dunham said.

In fact, in some cases, MARTA employees—cops or otherwise—have helped thwart crimes outside of their jurisdiction, thanks in part to the massive network of cameras at their disposal.

Of course, there are also some reluctant residents who don’t want to pay the additional tax for something they’d never use. And then there are people like Joe Newton, who the AJC described as a “one-man resistance movement.” Newton doesn’t trust MARTA to be good stewards of the collected tax cash and said the billions of dollars officials think they’ll collect won’t be enough to cover the costs of proposed projects, according to the AJC. He worries Gwinnett County will end up having to pay out of pocket to complete its goals.

What happens if the proposal passes?
Parker said the first tangible change people will notice is the “expanding local bus service, and then we will work with staff in Gwinnett County to talk about rebranding buses. We have a common fare system already, so that’s pretty easy.”

Currently, there’s no public bus service on Sundays in Gwinnett. That would change, and designs and plans for the BRT lines and heavy rail would follow.

And if the referendum passes, it could signal to places like Cobb County that MARTA could be a good get.

What happens if it fails?
Essentially, pro-transit Gwinnett officials and MARTA leaders would head back to the drawing board. After all, it’s not every day that suburban governments craft deals with mass transit agencies. (A similar referendum failed in Gwinnett in 1990, when the county’s population was far smaller and less diverse.) “The [Gwinnett County] Board of Commissioners and the [MARTA] Board of Directors would have to work out another contract,” Parker said.

“There is a groundswell of support for investing in public transit infrastructure and investing in the tremendous growth that’s happening in this region,” he added, nodding to interest from Fulton, DeKalb, and even Cobb Counties.

He said MARTA has “built a good bond” with Gwinnett officials, meaning they wouldn’t have to totally start from scratch.

When can I vote?
Gwinnett County residents can vote early every day—including Saturdays and Sundays—from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. until March 15. The official Election Day for the referendum is March 19.