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Transit debate turns to race

In two weeks, voters in traffic-choked Gwinnett County, a few miles northeast of Atlanta, will vote on whether to join MARTA, Atlanta's rapid-transit system. On the surface, it seems a simple choice.

Gwinnett voters can say yes, and they will get an 11-mile-long rail line and some bus routes. Cost: $682-million, to be paid for with a 1 percent sales tax increase. Ten years from now, MARTA officials promise, 20,000 commuters will be riding trains into and out of Gwinnett, easing the burden on local roads.

Or they can say no, save some money and sit in endless traffic jams.

But the debate over public transportation in Gwinnett County has been about anything but traffic and taxes. It has been about race and crime and Gwinnett's relationship with the city of Atlanta.

Take, for example, these letters to the editor of the Gwinnett edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

"I know we need transportation in Gwinnett," wrote Rosemary Leonard of Norcross, "but I'm afraid it would bring people from downtown that we don't need here. It's easy to hop on a train and get away fast, you know."

"As a native of Gwinnett County, I feel most people oppose MARTA and rightly so," offered Jimmy Norton of Snellville. ". . . Gwinnett County residents are willing to commute on the roadways to remain separate from the undesirable traits of mass transportation."

"First, I think it would create a crime artery in Gwinnett County," fumed Jim Carter of Lithonia. "And number two, I think it would be a slap in the face to Gwinnett County workers . . . due to an influx of low-cost labor from Atlanta."

And these are among the milder criticisms. At a public hearing last July, one opponent warned that MARTA would open a "direct line for the drug dealers at (downtown Atlanta's) Five Points to our fourth- and fifth-graders."

Another described MARTA as an effort by Atlanta to ship criminals to the suburbs. Referring to the city, he said, "that place has a reputation for murder and rape _ the wrong people. We don't need 'em, we don't want 'em."

Even the Ku Klux Klan has gotten into the act, staging a march in Lawrenceville, the county seat, to protest the MARTA vote.

There are some ironies in this tempest in the suburbs.

One is that MARTA (which stands for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) is frequently described in public transit circles as a model big-city system: modern, safe, clean and efficient.

Another is that Gwinnett County is considered one of Atlanta's more open-minded suburbs.

It is also one of the most traffic bound.

According to state government figures, there were 299,000 vehicles registered in Gwinnett in 1988 (the latest year available), in a county of 332,000 population. Subtracting the 68,000 residents under 15 years old, that means there's more than one car for each person old enough to drive.

Traffic is heavy everywhere in the county, but it is particularly so along the main routes into Atlanta: Interstate 85 and U.S. 19.

Commuters who brave those roads often resort to guerrilla tactics: taking short cuts through neighborhoods, working staggered hours to avoid peak commuting times, listening religiously to the radio traffic reporters who circle in helicopters.

They've tried everything, in other words, but mass transit. Gwinnett is the largest county in the United States with no public transportation system.

And the traffic woes are only beginning. The county's population doubled in the 1980s, and it is expected to double again in the next 20 years.

For MARTA advocates, that makes their case. "The county realizes that it can't build enough roads," said MARTA General Manager Kenneth M. Gregor. "So they have to look at public transportation . . . as an alternative."

If Gwinnett doesn't open its doors to MARTA, warn public transit advocates, it could hobble the county's development. "Companies aren't going to come out here (to locate) if they have to face a quagmire of traffic," said developer Richard S. Myrick, leader of the pro-MARTA forces in Gwinnett.

Another MARTA advocate, businessman Charles Brown, offers a larger perspective. If the suburbs don't let MARTA expand, Brown warns, it could hurt the entire Atlanta area.

"I think the growth and development and position of Atlanta as one of the world's great communities makes good transportation an absolute necessity," he said. "Can you imagine London without the Tube?"

But such arguments fall on deaf ears among the anti-MARTA forces. They have no interest in building bridges between Gwinnett and Atlanta. if anything, they want to build walls.

Many residents of the county moved there from Atlanta in the 1960s and 1970s to escape racial integration, said Curtis McGill, a Gwinnett County commissioner and MARTA opponent.

They see MARTA as another attempt by Atlanta to disrupt their lives. "That perception that they didn't feel safe in their own neighborhoods is very strong," McGill said.

Except for the Klan, opposition for MARTA is rarely stated publicly as racial _ even though nearly everyone, including McGill, admits racism plays a part.

Rather, opponents focus on the fear of crime as the main reason to oppose MARTA. They contend that, as the rail system has opened new stations in urban Fulton and DeKalb counties, crime has skyrocketed.

MARTA officials say it isn't so, and they have produced a study of crime in neighborhoods around new rail stations to back up their assertions.

The study did not settle the issue, however. Opponents denounced it as self-serving, and more objective observers said it was inconclusive.

But MARTA officials are sticking to their guns. Brown, who is a MARTA board member, says it stands to reason that criminals do not use public transit systems to commit crimes. "We've arrested very few people carrying stolen TV sets on a train," he said.

Even McGill admits the fear of crime is overblown. "But it is the perception that people are focusing on," he said.

And what is that perception? "What MARTA symbolizes to these folks is more urbanization," said Gregor.

Not everyone in Gwinnett County thinks closer ties to Atlanta is a bad thing.

Polls show that, while the referendum is likely is lose, MARTA's support among voters has grown in recent months. The county's business community is solidly behind it, and business interests are expected to spend $250,000 or more on newspaper ads, radio commercials and billboards to promote the referendum.

The MARTA effort got an unexpected boost in September when Atlanta won the right to host the 1996 Summer Olympics. A week later, city leaders staged a massive parade along Peachtree Street.

Tens of thousands of suburbanites came downtown to celebrate. Most of them rode MARTA.

Myrick, head of the MARTA forces in Gwinnett, says Atlanta's success in landing the Olympics may have caused some in the suburbs to look upon their big-city neighbor with greater appreciation.

"I think it's going to help Gwinnett people realize," he said, "that they're part of the Atlanta metropolitan area."

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