Pro-transit group ready for ‘dogfight’ with Gwinnett MARTA referendum

January 11, 2019 Atlanta - Marlon Allen speaks during a kickoff meeting at The Hudgens Center for Art and Learning in Duluth on Friday, January 11, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

January 11, 2019 Atlanta - Marlon Allen speaks during a kickoff meeting at The Hudgens Center for Art and Learning in Duluth on Friday, January 11, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

By Tyler Estep

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Go Gwinnett — the well-connected, well-funded advocacy group pushing for passage of the county’s referendum on joining MARTA — officially kicked off its campaign Friday afternoon.

And it’s ready for a dogfight.“This is not a shoo-in,” Paige Havens, the group’s spokeswoman, said. Expanding MARTA “seems like a no-brainer to every one of us in this room. … But (support is) sitting at about 50-50.”

IN-DEPTH: A comprehensive guide to Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum

In the weeks before Gwinnett’s March 19 referendum — which will ask voters if they want to join the MARTA system and pay new 1 percent sales tax to cover the cost of dramatic transit expansions — organization members will hold forums, go canvassing and advertise to make their pitch.

The group also has a website that’s now live at gogwinnett.org. They’re expecting the price tag for their efforts to enter seven-figure territory. And they say it’s worth it.

“I think this is the most important issue in our region for the next 30 years,” said Brian Robinson, a former spokesman for outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal.

Robinson is part of a bipartisan group of political consultants that will help guide the efforts of Go Gwinnett, which is co-chaired by businessmen Marlon Allen and Greg Cantrell. Their pitch is pretty straightforward: Now is the time to get on board with transit.

Gwinnett is a county that’s rapidly approaching 1 million people and projected to add 500,000 or more over the next 20-plus years. It’s a county that has put billions into a road system that remains clogged. And it’s a county that’s in an uphill battle for economic development if it has no mass transit.

Advocates see a pending contract with MARTA that would give Gwinnett far more control over finances than other member counties, and a plan for transit expansion that is comprehensive and feasible.

In addition to a heavy rail extension from Doraville to the I-85/Jimmy Carter Boulevard area near Norcross, the $5.5 billion plan suggests greatly expanded local bus service; several bus rapid transit (BRT) lines, which make fewer stops than local service and generally operate in dedicated lanes; and several new park-and-ride lots and express bus routes.

“It’s hard to argue when you truly know the facts,” Havens said.

Brian Tolleson