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The Atlanta Suburbs May Finally Be on Board for Mass Transit

The times — and maybe even the suburbs! — are a-changin: Lawmakers in Georgia's historically anti-transit Gwinnett County on Tuesday approved a ballot initiative for a one-cent sales tax hike to bring heavy rail and bus rapid transit to the fast-growing traffic-choked county northwest of Atlanta.

If approved in March, the "once unimaginable" tax hike — in the words of the Atlanta Journal Constitution — would raise $5 billion over 30 years and fund construction of heavy rail that would connect the most-populated areas of the county to the larger metro Atlanta transit system, MARTA.

The current "Connect Gwinnett" plan [PDF] calls for trains to run every 10 minutes and serve as a hub for vastly expanded surface service, including more local buses and three bus rapid transit lines serving major county destinations. Eventually the county wants to run 17 bus lines that operate at 30-minute headways on weekdays.

According to the AJC, there has been no organized opposition to the levy proposal. Even public meetings on the topic were mostly devoid of critics.

Just a few years ago, this would not have been possible. In May, after years of lobbying, the Georgia Legislature gave counties permission to raise local taxes to fund transit — and the state, which has historically underfunded mass transit, even threw in $100 million.

The change in policy prompted Atlanta's counties to consider more mass transit. Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb counties, with 2.5 million residents total, are in various stages of devising ways to fund mass transit, the AJC reports. Atlanta voters approved a tax hike in 2016 to fund mass transit. Struggling Clayton County, to the south, also approved a one-cent tax hike in 2014 to fund its own rail and bus links to the MARTA system.

In total, the Atlanta region seems to be on a different path than Nashville, where voters rejected a $5-billion transit levy in May.

Hot 'Lanta and its suburbs are warming up to mass transit partly because of the improving reputation of MARTA, which was led from 2012-2017 by former director Keith Parker, a career transit administrator. During his years at MARTA, Parker shored up the agency's finances and helped ingratiate it to state leadership. He left the agency last year to head up the Atlanta area Goodwill.

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