Passengers board a MARTA train during the evening rush hour in Atlanta. Will Gwinnett County residents finally to connect? David Goldman/AP

As suburban Gwinnett County weighs a MARTA expansion, changing demographics and politics may decide the Georgia capital's transportation future.

Update, 3/20/19: Voters rejected a much-anticipated referendum to expand Atlanta’s public transit system into Gwinnett County in Tuesday’s special election.

On March 19, voters in Gwinnett County, to the northeast of Atlanta, will decide on whether to approve a possible rail extension and a lot of better bus routes. If it’s successful, the transit referendum in Georgia’s second-largest county would make history—not only by connecting the sprawling suburban area to Atlanta’s regional transit system for the first time, but also signaling a possible shift in the metro’s divisive racial politics.

Some history helps explain why. In the early 1970s, voters in three of the five counties that comprise the Atlanta metro area rejected a 1-cent sales tax to build out the Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transportation Authority, which had been formed a few years prior. Racist scare tactics and rhetoric played a big role in that rejection. Whites had spent the better part of the 1960s fleeing Atlanta’s integrated city center, leaving a majority black population behind. The persistence of a racist joke from that era—the one about how MARTA stood for “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta”—still speaks to those tensions.

In those votes, “racial concerns trumped everything else,” Kevin M. Kruse, the Princeton historian and author of White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, told Atlanta magazine in 2012. “The more you think about it, Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure was designed as much to keep people apart as to bring people together.”

So while residents of Atlanta proper and the densest parts of DeKalb and Fulton counties got rail and bus service in the 1970s, suburban Clayton, Cobb, and Gwinnett were excluded. They remained that way for decades. In 1990, 70 percent of Gwinnett County voters defeated another proposal to join MARTA, a debate that featured citizens and elected officials airing yet more hideous views on race.

If you’re looking for prime examples of how white suburbanites employ the “crime train” narrative to advance the idea that public transportation is a conduit of urban dysfunction, you’ll find plenty here. “That place has a reputation for murder and rape—the wrong people,” one man said at a packed hearing in a high school auditorium, referring to the state capital. “We don’t need ‘em, we don’t want ‘em.”

W.J. Dodd, the county commissioner at the time, explained to the Associated Press how his constituents were feeling a few days before the vote: “One of the worst fears is bringing people out of Atlanta, the minorities.”

So state and county leaders built out highways instead, creating a mega-region notorious for sprawl, superlatively bad traffic, and terrible air quality. In 1999, Atlanta was the first city in the U.S. punished for its high pollution levels with a denial of federal road funds. That was followed by some meager transit service emerging in the counties, operated by fragmented local agencies. By and large, the MARTA buses and trains of today are underfunded, slow, and infrequent, and don’t reach critical jobs, healthcare centers, and schools in the places that snubbed them so many years ago.

But that is beginning to change. Gwinnett County—90 percent white in 1990—is today one of the most diverse communities in the Southeast. Some 20 percent of residents are Latino, 11 percent are Asian, and 26 percent are black. And early voting is already underway on next week’s referendum, where voters will decide to approve a pending service contract with MARTA and a one-cent sales tax increase over the next four decades.

The billions of dollars in revenue would pay for the possible extension of rail line from the existing station in Doraville to an envisioned multimodal transit hub in Norcross, a major job center. It could also spread bus rapid transit lines, add express commuter buses, and flesh out the thin existing local bus service that the county currently operates, according to a development proposal.

A map of proposed rapid bus and rail transit service in Gwinnett County, one among many transportation components that a one-cent sales tax proposal would pay for over the next four decades. (Gwinnett County)

If MARTA wins, the vote would build on growing support behind a more expansive transit future for the Atlanta area. That momentum started in 2014, when Clayton County voters approved a penny sales tax to build out bus and rail service and continued when Atlanta area voters agreed to pay the same to improve core MARTA service in 2016. The stakes are high: Success in Gwinnett could trigger Cobb County and other parts of metro Atlanta to get behind MARTA, too.

But if it fails, transit supporters may face a steeper climb in rallying future support in new areas. “Cobb’s leadership would balk at pushing for it,” said Brionte McCorkle, the executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters. “Gwinnett is the domino.”

The vote is likely be close, according to polls; it will all come down to turnout, McCorkle said. The nonprofit she leads is one of many organizations rallying voter support ahead of next week’s special election, which is being pitched as a referendum on the state’s future. The New Georgia Project Action Fund—the grassroots organizing arm of the campaign formed by Stacey Abrams, the Democrat who nearly unseated Republican Brian Kemp in last November’s gubernatorial race—has been pulling out the stops, knocking on 75,000 doors and texting 100,000 voters so far. The “Yes to MARTA” committee, spearheaded by the Georgia Sierra Club, has been doing outreach for 60,000 voters identified as environmentally conscious, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. The Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials are sending out mailers to tens of thousands of Latino households in the county.

Unsurprisingly, polling indicates that race and age play a big role in predicting support for the MARTA expansion, said Stacey Mink, a communications director for the Working Families Party. Polls show that people of color under 40 are more likely to support the referendum (they’re also more likely to ride transit), while older white voters are more inclined to less so. “We have to turn out young, diverse voters if we’re going to win on March 19,” she said in an email to CityLab.

But young people of color are statistically less likely to vote than older whites, and they’re even less likely to cast ballots in special elections. “We knew that this would pass during a general election. It was a heartbreaker,” McCorkle said, when [Gwinnett County Republicans] scheduled it for this month, instead.

Some opponents are principally opposed to the MARTA expansion because of the extra tax. But others are dusting off the “crime train” argument: In social media debates around the referendum, racially coded and misinformed fears that public transit will bring a “bad” element to the suburbs from the city persist. “It’s too easily accessed,” one early voter named Rachel Pace told the Journal-Constitution, explaining her concerns about crime on MARTA. “It’s too easy to get in and get out, and do what you need to do, and take what you need to take, and not be found.”

Such sentiments can apparently be found among voters in both parties. Bianca Keaton, the chair of the Gwinnett County Democratic party wrote a Facebook post listing a selection of responses she said she received in response to pro-MARTA text messages she’d sent to numbers listed for identified Democrats. They run the gamut of racist dog whistles to familiar anti-black and classist stereotypes. “I will vote yes if the trains can be segregated by race. Like when America was great,” was one reply she quoted.

But as Gwinnett County has become more diverse, it’s also shifted left in recent elections. That’s good news for proponents of the MARTA referendum, which has also gained a base of support among business leaders. The local Chamber of Commerce has called alternatives to private cars “vital for retaining and attracting new and expanded business” as congestion has worsened. Longtime large employers have recently left or expanded outside of Gwinnett County, choosing to locate closer to mass transit, said Keaton. In 2017, Amazon’s emphasis on high-quality public transit in its nationwide search for a second headquarters drove the issue home. International coverage of a collapsed interstate didn’t help matters.  

“Opponents complain about paying for an extra penny in sales tax, but we already pay for sitting in traffic all day. And we’re going to pay for lost business if we don’t get this passed,” Keaton said.

Keaton is hopeful that those practical arguments will win the day, and that a racially motivated resistance to transit doesn’t reflect Gwinnett County anymore. That’s why this vote is so consequential, she said—it’s the first time in nearly 30 years that a younger, more diverse population will have the opportunity to weigh what public transit could do for their communities. “There are folks here who will be driven to the polls by these motivations, that they don’t want black, brown, and poor people coming into their neighborhoods,” she said.

But considering how diverse Gwinnett is today, “those people are already here,” Keaton continued. “And I really need folks who want transit to be as motivated to turn out and vote as those who are motivated by the bad things.”

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