Gwinnett County shows transit remains a tough sell in metro Atlanta

Despite voting for Joe Biden eighteen percentage points greater than Donald Trump and electing what will be a 5-0 Democratic majority county commission starting in January, Gwinnett County voters showed public transit and its expansion remain a tough sell in metro Atlanta. With nearly 400,000 votes cast in a transit expansion and local sales tax referendum, the no’s have it — 199,144 no votes to 198,051 yes votes — a margin of only 1,090 votes.

If the referendum had passed, a thirty year local sales tax of one percent would have been levied in Gwinnett County for the purposes of expanding and operating public transit within the county. Projected revenues over the lifetime of the tax totaled $12.1 billion to fund 82 transit projects.

Map of precinct-level results for Gwinnett County transit referendum in November 2020 (Secretary of State photo)
Precinct-level results map (Secretary of State photo)

The referendum marked Gwinnett County’s second attempt to expand public transit in two years after a similar ballot question failed in March 2019. In a major contrast between then and now, the current referendum was structured so that Gwinnett County would retain management of its transit system instead of merging with MARTA — the transit operator metro Atlanta residents are most familiar with that operates in the city of Atlanta, Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton Counties.

In this year’s referendum, MARTA would have managed the proposed heavy-rail line extension from Doraville to Jimmy Carter Blvd (state law requires MARTA be the sole operator of heavy-rail lines) and the rest of the system would be managed by Gwinnett County. The heavy-rail line would cost $2.1 billion dollars to build and operate, representing 17% of the total collections, and had been a major source of debate among both elected officials and residents if the price tag justified its inclusion.

Precincts where a majority of voters voted in favor of the referendum, shaded in blue on the map above, were concentrated along the I-85 corridor and south Gwinnett County. Outlying areas of the county furthest from downtown Atlanta (shaded in green) voted a majority no. One precinct shaded in yellow was a 50-50 draw.

In a project summary posted by the Gwinnett Daily Post, the project list also included ten bus rapid transit routes — generally defined as bus routes operating in dedicated bus-only lanes with dedicated stations and off-board fare collection similar to rail lines — improvements to twenty-two local bus routes, three “direct connect” routes similar to commuter coach services operated by Xpress, and enhancements to existing bus services. Projects completed within the first ten years would have consisted of bus route upgrades with the heavy-rail extension projected to be operational by 2036.

Other Counties considering Public Transit plans

The referendum defeat delivers a setback for transit supporters within metro Atlanta, many of whom had expected the referendum to pass on a general election with higher turnout than last year’s special election, and creates uncertainty about momentum for future referenda in other jurisdictions. Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton Counties (the portions outside the city of Atlanta) have all been in discussions about possible transit referendums in their respective communities.

Discussions in Cobb County are similar to Gwinnett where no portion of the local sales tax is dedicated to public transit today and existing transit services are limited. In March 2019, county officials decided to wait until 2022 before any transit referendum might appear on the ballot. This was due in large part to the renewal of the county’s SPLOST program scheduled for November 2020 — a ballot measure that passed by a 66.4% yes margin on Tuesday — and to prevent two sales tax questions from appearing together on the ballot.

In DeKalb and Fulton Counties, discussions have been to expand transit through additional sales tax. Both counties levy a one-percent sales tax for MARTA operations and have done so for decades. DeKalb County officials adopted a transit master plan in 2019 that would require either a half-penny or full-penny increase in local sales tax to fund different options.

In Fulton County, cities have been unable to agree how to proceed forward with much of the dialogue centered on balancing investments between the north and south portions of the county. Also on the radar is a potential referendum to renew the county’s 0.75-cent transportation SPLOST program first approved in November 2016 for a five-year period, set to expire in March 2022. Both DeKalb and Fulton County discussions correspond to the portions of the county outside the city of Atlanta, where a long-term 0.5-cent increase in local sales tax was passed in 2016.

Here in Henry County, the county’s transit master plan kicked off in October with opportunities for public involvement expected soon. The future direction of transit in Henry County, whether to consider a major expansion of services like being contemplated in other counties or to maintain a smaller level of service like currently operating, will largely depend on the public feedback received.

The featured image of a MARTA heavy-rail train with the Georgia Capitol in the background is credited to Curbed Atlanta.