Sunday, July 20, 2008
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Was Gwinnett’s straw poll on MARTA a victory or a defeat for transit?
Did the split decision in Gwinnett’s non-binding vote on a 1 percent sales tax for a MARTA expansion hurt or help plans for a regional transit system?
And was the wording of the MARTA question on Tuesday’s ballot designed to get a “no” vote?
The question on the Republican ballot was:
Would you support an extension of the MARTA Rail line into Gwinnett County, which would include an additional one-cent sales tax?
The vote was 63 percent against and 37 percent in favor.
The question on the Democratic ballot was:
Would you support a 1 percent sales tax increase to extend MARTA into Gwinnett County?
That vote was 70 percent in favor and 30 percent against.
The combined results of the straw poll show 53 percent against and 47 percent in favor.
Interestingly enough, MARTA was not involved in putting the question before Gwinnett voters. Neither was the regional Transit Planning Board. Nor was the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce or the Gwinnett County Commission.
“Contrary to popular belief, MARTA had nothing to do with it,” said Beverly Scott, MARTA’s general manager. “If I had been able to ask the question, I would have asked it differently.”
So who decided to put the question before voters?
“If you find that out, I would love to know,” said Chuck Warbington, executive director of the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District.
So who was behind the straw poll?
“I have no idea except to say it was a Republican Party and a Democratic Party question,” Commission Chairman Charles Bannister said. “It didn’t come from me.”
Warbington believed putting the word “MARTA” on the ballot was done to get a negative response. “The intent was to get people to shut up about transit,” Warbington said. “But it ended up backfiring on them.”
In Warbington’s mind, the combined vote lost by only 3 percentage points even with MARTA as part of the question and with no specifics on where the rail would go and how the money would be allocated. “Nobody knew what they were voting on,” he said.
Cheryl King, staff director of the Transit Planning Board, said her personal view is that the Gwinnett ballot questions actually had two questions in one. Do you support rail in Gwinnett? And do you want MARTA to run it?
“When you put them together, you confuse the issue,” she said. “This is not about MARTA. This is about how we are going to address our congestion problems.”
Currently, the Transit Planning Board is working on a new governance structure for a regional transit system. The configuration and the name of MARTA could change in that proposal.
Scott said as the region’s transit footprint expands and new funding partners emerge, “there will be a modified governance structure.”
What’s most important in Scott’s mind is for the region to have an integrated transit system no matter what it’s called or configured. “We will not wind up being the people holding this region back from moving forward,” Scott said.
Bannister, who supports the Transit Planning Board’s Concept 3 plan for Gwinnett, said voters have said they want rail but not MARTA as it is currently structured.
The vote did show that Gwinnett’s opposition to MARTA and transit has softened since 1990, when it was last on the ballot. That proposal failed overwhelmingly with a 70 percent to 30 percent vote.
Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, said the vote shows the impact of $4-a-gallon gasoline, as well as traffic problems.
“I’m surprised that the way the ballot was worded that it came out as well as it did,” Williams said. “But commuters are having to reconsider the way that they get to work.”
So, once again, who did put the question on the ballot and what was the motive?
Greg Howard, chairman of the Gwinnett Republican Party, had the answer.
“We did that,” Howard said. “This is one of the best ways to see how the citizens feel.”
Howard, who called himself “pro-transit,” said he used to be a regular MARTA rider when he lived in DeKalb County.
But he acknowledged that he is uncomfortable with the current governance and operation of the transit system. And he believes that MARTA by another name would still be MARTA.
Still, Howard said the question was not designed to get a “no” vote or to skew the outcome.
“I wanted to see if there was acceptance in the community,” Howard said.
The final question: Was the Gwinnett vote a victory or a loss for regional transit?
Howard’s take: “I think it did a little better than I was expecting.”