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Gwinnett County’s Rejection of MARTA May Be about More than Partisan Politics

The voters of Gwinnett County have recently rejected a proposal for a local MARTA expansion. This isn’t the first time — voters turned down similar proposals in both 1971 and 1990 — but greater population diversity and worsening traffic congestion had led many transit advocates to believe this might be MARTA’s year in Gwinnett.

There were no doubt many factors contributing to the proposal’s defeat, some of them underhanded. The issue was left off the November ballot and relegated to a special election, excluding many lower income voters and giving the county’s dwindling population of wealthy suburbanites a louder voice. One anti-transit activist even arranged robocalls telling voters that MARTA was planning to “put thousands of apartments in Gwinnett,” exploiting racist and classist prejudices against apartment-dwellers, even though MARTA has no role in planning residential construction.

However, while this may sound like a typical political battle over the general issue of public transportation, MARTA isn’t just any public transit system, and certain objections to the expansion were compellingly specific.

Opponents of the Expansion Pointed to Misleading Wording on the Ballot

While the proposed contract with MARTA was widely discussed and hotly debated in advance, the actual ballot question voters were met with was, “Gwinnett County has executed a contract for the provision of transit services, dated as of August 2, 2018. Shall this contract be approved?”

Critics of the proposal understandably objected to the omission of any mention of the 1% sales tax increase that would fund the expansion, let alone any details of how exactly that money would be spent. MARTA expansions have a history of collecting the money first and allocating it later, leaving out key maintenance and expected improvements.

Even more telling, however, is the omission of the name “MARTA.” If the question was in fact worded to circumvent voter objections, it seems voters weren’t expected to object to the concept of public transit, but to MARTA itself. There’s good reason for that.

MARTA Has a Well-Earned Reputation for Disappointing and Endangering Taxpayers

In addition to its slow and opaque transformation of funds into actual progress, MARTA’s mismanagement has repeatedly put travelers in danger. Children have lost appendages and fallen down elevator shafts in its stations. Its maintenance arrangements have been plagued with scandals, injury-causing accidents and, in one case, a mechanic who deliberately sabotaged over a hundred escalators.

Outside maintenance contractors have been part of the problem, but not all of it. In 2018, MARTA’s own senior director of operations was found guilty of embezzling over $500,000 earmarked for maintenance that was never performed.

On top of the many preventable accidents caused by inadequate maintenance, protection against crime is practically non-existent in MARTA stations. In August of 2018, a mother and her adult daughter were struck and injured by a MARTA train after a man attacked and pushed the mother onto the tracks, and the daughter attempted to help her.

Perhaps Gwinnett County voters are sending MARTA a valuable message — to save expansion until after it can properly care for its existing commuters. If you or a loved one have been hurt due to unsafe MARTA conditions, contact the Stoddard Firm right away to discuss your next steps.