Gwinnett Voters Say "NO" to MARTA - Politicians and Special Interest Groups Say "Try Again"

Gwinnett county voters recently had the opportunity to weigh-in on whether to accept a 16.7% increase in the county retail sales tax rate that would remain in place for at least 38 years in exchange for support for a public transportation takeover of Gwinnett Transit and expansion of MARTA into the county. The special election held on March 19, 2019 returned the same result as in two previous attempts to expand MARTA into Gwinnett (1971 and 1990). That answer was: NO.

Supporters of the referendum to expand MARTA had expected a close vote, but expressed confidence that they would prevail due to a booming population, increasing traffic congestion, and changing demographics. Bi-partisan political support bolstered tremendous investments in campaigning and get-out-the-vote efforts funded in large part by special interests. In the end, it wasn’t enough. No sooner had the results been tallied as a loss than supporters began planning to bring the question before voters once again. Explanations for the March 19th vote were mostly variations on a theme: the wrong people voted.

Consider the wording of the referendum on the ballot:

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 ___

No mention of an increase in sales taxes (from 6 cents to 7 cents - an increase of 16.7%). No mention of the minimum period of time for which that increase in sales taxes would apply (from April 1, 2019 through 2057). No mention that in the event of a shortfall, property taxes would serve as the backstop to make up any funding gaps. In the intense run-up to the election, residents were fed a steady diet of promises of traffic relief and vastly superior public transit options.

It’s important to note that nearly every public transportation project runs into huge cost overruns, project timelines that extend to several times original estimates, and those that do complete will forever require public subsidy in the form of ongoing taxes to support operations. Public transportation is public, expressly because it requires subsidies from taxpayers in order to operate.

The last major transit project in the Atlanta metro was the Atlanta Streetcar project. Its history has followed the same failed trajectory that has marked public transit projects nationwide, and serves as a warning to those being asked to fund the expansion of MARTA. Despite every optimistic projection for the operation of the Atlanta Streetcar, it has never met expectations, even during its inaugural period when ridership failed to meet predictions despite offering free fares. The streetcar line was ultimately passed to MARTA where it continues to run huge deficits.

Another factor that has not received widespread attention is that public transportation is seeing decreased ridership nationwide. MARTA trips have decreased each year for the past three years.

MARTA Ridership KPI shows decreasing demand for public transit in Metro Atlanta

MARTA Ridership KPI shows decreasing demand for public transit in Metro Atlanta

Public transit options are struggling to maintain pace with private sector solutions that don’t cost the taxpayer in order to subsidize a product with decreasing demand. Uber and Lyft have added new and more flexible options, while scooter and bicycle rentals are solving the “last mile” challenge that public transportation has never been able to tackle.

Gwinnett voters have spoken, but politicians and special interests are intent on pressing for another vote they can tie to larger national elections in order to draw more voters. They are ignoring the fact that Gwinnett residents with the most at stake saw fit to cast their vote on March 19th. Instead, they’re going to ask voters to decide again……until they get it right. Once that desired result is obtained, the residents will be stuck paying the bill for an inflexible, increasingly outdated, and costly public transportation system - the same system that is currently losing riders to better, private sector options in Fulton, Dekalb, and Clayton counties.

Ed ThompsonComment