Deceased: Gwinnett County Transit Referendum
Synopsis: The deceased was not a victim of racism, voters rejecting transit or other suspected causes. Although there were numerous complicating factors, voter rejection of MARTA was determined to be the cause of death.
In the wake of the referendum’s demise, heads are shaking, fingers are pointing, and tongues are wagging. On social media, proponents are predicting a doomsday of clogged highways and missed opportunity, while opponents are expressing relief that mass transit won’t be bringing more crime to their neighborhoods or that they won’t be paying for something they won’t use. Yet for all the pontificating, the true cause of death, reliance on MARTA, largely remains unaddressed.
Certainly, the personal bias of some social media activists caused them to advocate a “NO” vote. However, most negative opinions arose not from bias, but from personal experiences on MARTA trains and buses. Those include poor service, delays, rude employees, and feeling threatened by other passengers.
Some of the hand-wringers lamenting the referendum’s failure cite a partisan divide as the cause, alleging Republican resistance to transit expansion. Such an argument has absolutely no basis in fact. In 2018, every Republican candidate running for state-wide office lost in Gwinnett County; the referendum lost because of bipartisan rejection. merit
Proposals to expand public transit survive if they are perceived to adequately handle an area’s specific transportation needs at reasonable cost. A majority of voters clearly believed that wasn’t the case with the “MARTA referendum”. That initial negative response was compounded by the projected billion dollar-plus expense of building a heavy rail extension, and time frame for construction.
Concerns over current and future cost played out against a backdrop of MARTA’s track record of corruption, inefficiency and financial mismanagement. Although the agency seems to have gotten it financial affairs back on track, stigma of past issues persists. Giving MARTA access to Gwinnett taxpayer funds, although controlled by the county, was perceived as a roll of the dice. Would the agency roll a seven by using Gwinnett funds efficiently, or would it roll snake eyes by lapsing into the patterns of the past?
Yet even if MARTA was a model of financial integrity, it would remain a money pit. For MARTA’s 2018 fiscal year, revenues decreased $11 million while operating expenses increased $47.1 million compared to the previous year. That resulted in total fare revenues of $138.2 million, and total operating expenses of $715.68 million. Additionally, MARTA incurred $104 million in non-operating expenses. The $681.48 million fare-to-operating expense shortfall of was made up by sales and use taxes and federal revenues.
Consequently, even though the county’s transit plan included a host of bus routes, (including BRT, express bus and micro transit) many of which would be implemented within a year, they were overshadowed by the $1 billion+ cost and 20-year time frame of a four-mile extension of MARTA heavy rail. Heavy rail is widely viewed as a relic of the past making the referendum seem to be a MARTA money grab to be used to finance obsolete technology.
The money grab perception was fueled by a one per cent sales tax that would serve as the expansion plan’s financial vehicle. That tax was to apply to sales of ALL purchases including those for food and prescription drugs. In so doing, the tax would have hit lower income families- ironically, those most in need of public transit options- the hardest.
Gwinnett County is currently operating a pilot micro-transit program that has been extremely successful. Had the billion dollars earmarked for heavy rail expansion instead been applied to micro-transit, it would have paid for operation of over 600 routes for over 16 years. And it could have been implemented within a matter of months, without any involvement of MARTA.
Perhaps if a billion dollars had been allocated for micro-transit, rather than MARTA heavy rail, the patient would still be alive.