I initially intended to publish this piece here, but was asked if I’d share it to support the (re)launch of AdvanceAtlanta.com. It was first published there on July 28.
The Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 recently to put a transit referendum on the ballot for this November, giving the county its second chance in as many years to vote for a penny sales tax supporting a massive expansion of transit service in the county. While revenues would vary based on those sales tax collections, the plan put forth by the county expects $8 billion in local funds over the next 30 years, with another $4 billion added through federal matching funds.
Though last year’s failure disappointed transit advocates throughout the region, myself certainly included, proponents were able to chalk up a loss at the polls to unusual circumstances. The decision to set a March 2019 special election, rather than target the November 2018 midterm election ballot, predictably led to low turnout and skewed the electorate towards older, whiter, more conservative voters. Though transit support isn’t clearly split along partisan lines, polling just before the 2019 referendum showed self-identified Democratic voters were more likely to support the MARTA referendum than Republicans or independents. With presidential election turnout this November, and Gwinnett’s increasingly Democratic political leanings, this referendum should be in a much better position to pass.
But a lot has changed in just the past year and a half, both in Atlanta and nationally. The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted transportation, with transit suffering most acutely. Many detractors have argued transit will never recover, as potential riders fear sharing spaces with strangers and opt to drive themselves instead. Or former urban commuters simply turn to telework. Though lasting impacts are possible, nobody truly knows what pandemic-era travel behavior sticks two or three years from now.
The Black Lives Matter protests that erupted following George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent national dialogue around racial justice have raised the stature of transit as an transportation equity issue. Lack of access to affordable, reliable transportation has long limited economic mobility for people of color, and investment in transit is increasingly seen as an important tool in fighting inequality. Gwinnett politics are still a far cry from Atlanta’s, but advocates may be able to lean into equity arguments more forcefully than in the past.
Locally, MARTA faced backlash from current jurisdictions for the favorable deal Gwinnett negotiated prior to its 2019 referendum, which would have allowed the county more control of its sales tax revenues than Fulton, DeKalb, or the City of Atlanta have. Long story short, Gwinnett probably would not have been able to secure such a deal again, complicating its path to joining MARTA in the short-term. With limited time to revise its transit plan, clear the necessary county and regional planning hurdles, and negotiate a new MARTA contract to join the system, this “ATLSPLOST” referendum was likely the quickest path back to the ballot. Gwinnett will still need to contract with MARTA to build and operate its heavy rail extension, and a later vote to fully join the MARTA system is still on the table, but for now Gwinnett County Transit would remain independent.
In some respects though, this plan is stronger than the one that preceded it. County commissioners went back to the drawing board and addressed perceived shortcomings, resulting in a justifiably more ambitious program. An accelerated delivery timeline for local bus service, more bus rapid transit and local bus service in smaller municipalities like Lilburn and Sugar Hill, and generally more aggressive funding assumptions in line with where federal policy is trending.
Voters cannot be expected to understand how transit funding works, as even most advocates are oblivious to the multitude of federal formula and discretionary grant programs. But beyond standard pro-transit arguments, Gwinnett advocates need to internalize three arguments before November.
First, federal transit funding will increase dramatically this decade due to shifting national political priorities. It’s not a matter of if, just when. Democratic proposals for the next surface transportation authorization would nearly double federal transit funding to roughly $25 billion/year, most of it distributed to transit systems based on their size and population served. All taxpayers contribute, but the more robust your transit system, the more you get in return. Therefore Gwinnett, Cobb, and other Atlanta region counties that have failed to invest in their transit systems have been depriving themselves of available federal resources for decades. With the expected increase in funding, that gap will widen if our counties don’t begin seriously funding their systems. Gwinnett needs to begin drawing local revenue as quickly as possible so it can capitalize on the likely deluge of federal matching dollars from competitive grant programs, which fund capital projects like rail and bus rapid transit.
Second, transit systems will look very different in 2030 than they do today. Advances in electrification, telecommunications, and automation technologies will enable new vehicle platforms, operating models, and enhancements to commuter experience. Transit’s detractors cite these as reasons to withdraw from publicly funding transit infrastructure, with ludicrous assumptions about technology firms’ ability to develop and manage alternatives. But transit isn’t frozen in time. These same innovative automotive technologies are finding their way onto transit buses, ensuring the vehicles we ride a decade from now will look and feel considerably different than those today.
The bus rapid transit service Gwinnett has proposed will likely be fully electric, quieter and more comfortable for passengers and drivers alike. Connected vehicle capabilities will prioritize buses (and emergency vehicles), adjusting signal timing on approach to ensure speedier travel times. Private sector investments in automation technology are also beginning to spill over into public transit. I’m managing North America’s first automated transit bus deployment, set for a 2022 launch in Connecticut. Continued federal funding will support commercialization of this technology, improving ride quality, increasing safety and accessibility, and allowing buses to look and feel more like trains.
Speaking of trains, Gwinnett’s proposed heavy rail extension into the county would be serviced by state-of-the-art railcars that MARTA will procure over the next decade. Upgrades to mobile applications will allow mobile ticketing, reliable trip planning and way-finding, and integration with tech firm mobility services. From my industry position, I have the privilege of working with technology that Atlantans won’t see deploy for half a decade or more. But November’s vote isn’t going to buy today’s technology; it’s an investment in tomorrow’s.
Third, the planned multimodal passenger terminal would be one of the Atlanta region’s most transformational projects. Gwinnett bought the 103-acre OFS Fitel site at I-85 and Jimmy Carter Boulevard in 2018, anticipating it could serve as the terminus for a MARTA Gold Line extension into the county. Though not included in the transit plan, any future commuter rail up to Hall County or high-speed rail projects between Atlanta and Charlotte would run alongside the terminal, and increase its importance as a regional transportation hub. Forget visions of robotaxis and flying cars, expanding rail is still a far more viable intercity transportation investment, looking even 30 years into the future.
Development of the multimodal passenger terminal would also stimulate the surrounding area, currently a sea of low-density commercial properties, and give Gwinnett the proper gateway into Atlanta it desperately needs. Sprawl up I-85 and the county’s other highways not only produces crippling commuter traffic, but limits Gwinnett’s ability to develop an attractive suburban commercial center akin to Fulton’s Perimeter Center or Cobb’s Cumberland district. The county has already lost multiple Fortune 500 headquarters to Buckhead and Midtown Atlanta over the past several years, and even with COVID-19 potentially damaging demand for dense urban living, few expect low-density suburbs to become magnets for tech startups and other innovative firms. Gwinnett’s planned transit centers are likewise opportunities to reimagine these spaces as vibrant commercial hubs, providing access to jobs, workforce housing, and new municipal amenities. This is the vision transit advocates need to be selling.
Ideally, Gwinnett would have joined MARTA rather than maintain an independent transit entity. But this is a great start, and it needs to succeed at the ballot box. The implications of another failure cannot be overstated. Even a narrow loss in November could set the region back a decade. Cobb is eyeing its own major ballot initiative in the next several years, as are Fulton and DeKalb for expansions of their existing MARTA service. Outer counties in the Atlanta region are looking at ATLSPLOST referenda as well. That’s a lot of local funding on the table—and federal matching dollars—at stake in November.