For the second time in two years, voters in Gwinnett County, a fast-growing Atlanta suburb, voted ‘no’ on a proposed one percent sales tax increase for mass transit.
Local elected officials were in disbelief that the referendum failed again this year. Before the election, Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Nick Massino said, “This is going to be the last time we need to worry about this because it will pass.”
So what happened?
In 2019, local voters defeated a county transit referendum on joining the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transportation Authority (MARTA). The authority’s 30-year plan had numerous local bus routes, three bus rapid transit routes (BRT heavy), five express bus routes, six rapid routes (BRT lite), three direct-connect routes, eight flex routes, and technology improvements such as transit-signal priority and new park and ride lots. If approved, the sales tax increase would have funded an impressive bus-based system. Unfortunately, it also had a multi-billion dollar heavy rail extension. Additionally, switching the service operator from private contractor Transdev to MARTA may have reduced the popularity of the referendum and contributed to its failure.
Many mass transit advocates suggested one reason the 2019 vote failed was that it was held during an off-year election when more Republicans than Democrats were voting. Some advocates suggested that the Republican-led County Commission intentionally chose the off-year election to prevent the transit referendum from being on the same ballot as candidates. Political leaders’ main takeaway was that the referendum needed to be held during a general election when turnout would be larger.
However, many transit analysts and demographers came to a different conclusion.
Gwinnett now has the second-largest population in Georgia, with more than 900,000 citizens. Unlike Fulton County, home to Atlanta and the most populated county in the metro area with several high-density areas, Gwinnett’s population is more dispersed.
Some transit analysts believed the 2019 referendum failed because the proposed multi-billion dollar heavy rail extension from the DeKalb County line to the Gwinnett Arena would take up so much money and reduce the amount of funding for other parts of the county. Analysts noted that MARTA—the rail and bus operator in Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton counties, as well as the city of Atlanta, which would operate most of the service—remained very unpopular in Gwinnett.
For 2020, political leaders did make some needed changes to their failed 2019 proposal. Transdev, and not MARTA, would operate all of the bus services, for example. Planners also added an additional bus rapid transit route, five additional local routes, two additional express routes, and planned to implement additional routes within 10 years instead of 20 years. In addition, 72 percent of Gwinnett County would receive paratransit service. However, the referendum still included a three-mile MARTA heavy-rail extension from DeKalb County into Norcross.
Emboldened by changing demographics and voter intensity in the 2020 election, local officials were confident that the 2020 referendum would pass. It didn’t. The transit referendum failed despite a local blue wave that saw Democrats capture every Gwinnett County Commission position, positions like district attorney and sheriff, as well as President-elect Joe Biden winning almost 60 percent of the county’s vote share on his way to winning the state of Georgia.
In addition to the transit vote, there was an education sales tax referendum, which passed. Political analysts note that voters are less inclined to support multiple tax-increase referenda so some of the transit tax increase’s failure may stem from the competition with the education tax increase. MARTA’s unpopularity also likely reduced the measure’s support.
But similar to the 2019 defeat, the biggest factor appears to be the location of the transit service in the proposal. Most mass transit services offered in the referendum, including the heavy rail line, remained centered in one part of the county. Voters in the other parts of the county, even if they are generally supportive of transit, may have been unwilling to vote for a tax that they saw as having nothing in it for them.
Gwinnett is not going to give up on a transit expansion. Gwinnett leadership may now realize one of its biggest hurdles is “geographic equity” and that a future referendum needs to include projects in all areas of the county.
As planners and local officials consider their options, the easiest way to meet this goal would be to replace the three-mile heavy rail extension with a bus rapid transit line that can travel to Duluth or Lawrenceville. Capital costs for BRT lines are about one-ninth of the capital costs for heavy rail lines, allowing many more areas to be served by bus rapid transit. Most of the proposed rail line’s riders would have had to transfer to a bus before they reached their final destination using the rail line anyway. In some ways, the rail line seemed to be less about delivering a good transit experience to a wide section of residents and more about officials being able to brag that the county would have some heavy rail service.
Ultimately, transportation officials should look at the results and take away the lesson that the type of transit service Gwinnett County offers — bus versus rail, for example — is less important to voters and riders than paying for a transit system that gets them to as many places they want to go as possible.