Controversial transit vote could derail or spur Gwinnett growth

by Mary Welch

By all accounts, the March 19 vote on expanding public transportation, including a rail line, into Gwinnett County should be close. And the impact on one of the country’s fastest growing counties will be immense — no matter which way the vote goes. While most believe the decision will be by the slimmest of margins, a new poll suggests otherwise. A recent WSB-TV/Rosetta Stone poll showed that 39 percent support the referendum. For the first time, more than half are projected to oppose it at 51.4 percent, with almost 10 percent undecided.

Voters will be asked to levy a 1 percent sales tax on Gwinnett County to pay for transit expansion, bringing the county sales tax to seven percent. The tax, which will be levied until 2057, is estimated to bring in at least $5 billion. If it passes, MARTA, which operates bus and rail lines in Fulton and DeKalb counties, would take over Gwinnett’s existing bus system, which includes five local routes and six express routes to the Atlanta area. It is estimated that a positive vote would add seven new routes and more than double the bus hours of service available to county residents. Bus rapid transit lines are also planned.

High stakes

The vote is considered critical to real estate development in the area. “I pray that it passes,” said Aaron Johnson, governmental affairs director for the Atlanta Realtors Association. “It’ll be close — very close.”

“If it passes, it will signal to the rest of the state the importance of regional transportation,” he added. If it fails, “it will be harder for Georgia to continue to attract people in the manner that it wants to… there needs to be an all-out effort to get it passed.”

Local real estate companies and associations are doing their best. The metro Atlanta chapter of the Asian Real Estate Association of America recently held a meeting to discuss the issue, and it was well-attended, despite a heavy rainfall. “People were genuinely interested in the matter and were eager to participate and talk about the impact public transit will have on the county and community,” wrote Helen Pham Nguyen, president of the group, in an email to Atlanta Agent magazine.

From a numbers standpoint, the county is growing and is projected to become the state’s most populous by 2040 with some 1.5 million people. Currently there are more than 900,000 residents and that number should be north of one million within a few years.

The Northeast Atlanta Metro Association of Realtors polled its members and 66 percent favored the expansion, said Tom O’Rourke, CEO and executive vice president of the group. “It’s more than just the rail line and people need to remember that,” he said. “It’s a number of different transportation initiatives. … But every voter should remember what it’s like sitting for hours at a time in traffic, like I did this morning. Every side road into Atlanta was totally packed.”

In fact, O’Rourke believes the one rail line stop may not be enough. “I don’t know what plans the state has or what but it makes sense to me to expand rail. Get as much light rail as fast as you can in multiple directions. I love going to Doraville and going straight to the airport in 42 minutes.”

O’Rourke sides with those who believe a better county transportation system is imperative for future growth. “It’ll be a catalyst for expansion for the whole area. It has to be done. People are coming into Gwinnett, not just to live and work, but for our restaurants, shopping, the Infinite Energy Center. You can go to any major city and go anywhere by mass transit; you can’t in Atlanta.”

Why some may vote no

Perhaps the most controversial aspect is the proposal to bring MARTA’s rail service from Doraville to a multi-modal transit hub located near the Jimmy Carter Boulevard/I-85 area.

Opposition, O’Rourke believes, will focus on residents not wanting an increase in their sales tax (though he noted that “a lot of that sales tax will be paid by others passing through”), and the worry that mass transportation brings crime. “I keep hearing that, but it’s never been proven,” he added.

Nguyen said that in the AREAA meeting, those opposed mentioned public safety and the security of home values. But, “according to statistics and contrary to popular beliefs, public transit will increase home value up to 42 percent when located near high frequency areas,” she wrote.

A generation of buyers in the wings

Both Nguyen and Johnson said that millennials will require access to transportation options, which if Gwinnett doesn’t offer, will make the residential real estate market less attractive.

“The largest group of homebuyers are now millennials, a uniquely hipster crowd who appreciates green living, eco-friendly environments and ease of convenience and have shown to favor alternative modes of transportation rather than the automobiles their parents have come to love,” she wrote. “Bringing public transit to the county will boost the local economy and generate as much as 25 percent in economic returns.”

Johnson admitted he wasn’t a “market guy” but said his guess would be “that the next generation would like to have transportation options and tend to live where they have those options. You’re limiting your options if you vote against it.”