Gwinnett Transit Vote a Mixed Bag

By Benita Dodd

Benita Dodd

Before Gwinnett County voters even decide whether their transit plan leaves the station, it will cost taxpayers almost $770,000. That’s the cost of holding the election on March 19 instead of during last November’s general election.

Such special elections are notorious for low turnout, bringing out the diehards on either side of an issue. They’re a waste of taxpayer money, a way for politicians to limit opposing voices, and they deserve to be outlawed.

At the polls, Gwinnett’s voters face an especially vague referendum question – another practice long overdue for legislative change:

“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 a majority checks “yes,” Gwinnett’s pending “Rapid Transit Contract” with MARTA will be ratified – until 2057. When it comes to transportation and technology, a lot can change in 10 years, let alone 37.  

Voters are also agreeing Gwinnett will impose a new 1 percent sales tax for the next 30 years to pay for the plan. Gwinnett’s sales tax is four cents on the dollar for the state and two cents for the county; a one-cent increase is a 17 percent overall sales tax increase and a whopping 50 percent county sales tax hike. The hope is to raise over $5 billion for transit.

The question is whether the transit options Gwinnett considers are wise and forward-thinking. And to be sure, some are. The contract, based on the Gwinnett Connect transit plan, includes a 125 percent increase in much-needed bus service: 50 miles of Bus Rapid Transit in dedicated lanes, 110 miles of Rapid Bus traveling in mixed traffic, and more express and local buses. It also includes door-to-door flex service and vanpools.

But the plan also promotes “complementary land-use policies,” among them policies that “encourage” transit-oriented, higher-density and mixed-use developments, and “road diets” that reduce auto lanes to promote bikes and walkability. These exacerbate congestion, hinder automobiles and – as perhaps is the intention – add “choice” transit riders.

What gets Gwinnettians most excited, apparently, is the rail component. While the contract mentions “a potential rail extension or other high capacity transit system,” Commission Chair Charlotte Nash assured her audience in the 2019 State of Gwinnett County Address last month: “And, yes, the plan includes an extension of rail … and a multimodal transit hub.”

This “potential” 4.5-mile rail extension, on track for perhaps 20 years away, is priced at $1.15 billion in 2018 dollars. Gwinnett should drop the romance with rail; there are more cost-effective, forward-thinking alternatives than costly rail to accomplish that.

Meanwhile, Gwinnett will pay MARTA “a fair share for operations and maintenance of the overall system going forward,” Nash said.

Make no mistake: MARTA’s system needs a lot of massaging. A 2018 American Public Transportation Association report estimates a $2.2 billion backlog in funds to bring the system into a “state of good repair.” This comes amid a longtime, ongoing decline in ridership, even with the Streetcar and Clayton County bus service. It’s no wonder MARTA needs to expand.

Gwinnett’s promising transit ideas should be tweaked. BRT, for example, should be “virtual” BRT instead of a totally dedicated lane. A bus running every five minutes leaves the lane empty for four minutes – a waste of capacity. Autonomous vehicles, carpools, van pools or tolled vehicles could pay to use that downtime capacity.

Gwinnett has exciting opportunities to take advantage of technology in transit, including autonomous shuttles and vehicles, partnering the private-sector services with public transportation, and subsidizing ride-share to reduce government’s cost, all while ensuring commuters’ preferences are respected.

A version of this commentary appeared in the Sunday, March 10, edition of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (March 15, 2019). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.