Voter rejection of a MARTA expansion plan in Gwinnett County provides an object lesson for Cobb officials in how not to go about selling a future transit plan.
The Gwinnett proposal, to be financed with a new 1 percent sales tax, called for bus routes to be expanded and run by MARTA and for heavy rail that would not be ready for 20 years. The plan went down in defeat, 54 percent to 45 percent, in a typically low turnout for a special election. About 17 percent of registered voters — totaling 91,982 out of 543,458 registered — went to the polls despite an all-out push by supporters of the proposal.
Leading the effort was Commission Chair Charlotte Nash and a committee backed by the business community, plus an endorsement from former Gov. Nathan Deal, who signed into law a sweeping regional transit plan setting the stage for the referendum. The legislation authorized 13 metro Atlanta counties to levy new sales tax of up to 1 percent for new transit projects with a deadline of the end of this year to come up with a plan.
Gwinnett’s plan started out on the wrong foot when the Gwinnett Commission backed a special election for this month instead of putting the question on the ballot in last November’s midterm elections. The county’s now-Democrat-led legislative delegation said the outcome “is not the failure of Gwinnett voters, but Gwinnett County commissioners who politicized the process by requiring a special election in March.” The faulty timing was as much as conceded on election night by Nash. On the next proposal — and there will be another — she said, “I think we’ll line it up with one of what I call big elections.” In other words, the old strategy of using a special election to get supporters to the polls in a light turnout does not work.
The issue of a new tax played a key role, of course. In post-election interviews, some voters said they opposed a new tax for a transit system they would not use and one that would serve only part of the county, while others considered the plan to be ill-conceived, wrong for the county with benefits too far into the future. Add to that the longstanding disfavor of MARTA in Gwinnett. Voters had rejected MARTA twice before since the 1970s and this time around as the election neared, polls showed a majority of voters opposed the plan.
Get-out-the vote campaigns featured Republican heavyweights aimed at the conservative voters. On its website, Go Gwinnett posted comments by former Gov. Deal, who said in each meeting with a prospective new business coming to the metro area, “the first two questions were ‘do you have transit?’ and ‘how far is this location from Hartsfield-Jackson Airport?’ More and more, large, high-paying employers would not even consider locations within metro areas that don’t offer robust transit options for their employees.” Likewise, endorsements of the plan came from Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, and talk show host Erick Erickson as well as the best-known Georgia Democrat, Stacey Abrams. All that firepower didn’t work. The outcome shows once again that voters make up their minds on taxes and self-interest, not endorsements by politicians.
Cobb officials are taking a smarter approach, not running ahead of their constituents thus far and not planning to mix any transit proposal with the SPLOST renewal on the 2020 ballot. It’s abundantly clear by now that a lot of hard, honest groundwork will have to be done in Cobb before any proposal is submitted to the voters.
Eyeing the Gwinnett debacle, Chairman Mike Boyce of the Cobb Commission, said it “illustrates the importance of the plan that we have to make sure that we take the time to methodically approach the voters, get their input, take that input and shape it into a product, … give it back to them to validate it and then put it on the ballot in a referendum.”
That’s spot on, Mr. Chairman. Let the voters speak — before the election.