Right now, Gwinnett County voters are being asked to decide whether or not to approve a proposed MARTA expansion. CBS46 is taking a deeper dive into the issue and what the outcome of the vote means not only for Gwinnett County but for the region. Can Atlanta be a world class city, reaching for world class events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics, bidding for deals like the Amazon HQ2, without having a world class mass transit system for our residents and visitors? Is Atlanta on the right track?

ATLANTA (CBS46) -- To understand the future of MARTA, you can learn a lot by looking at the history of MARTA.

Just a decade after the last electric street car retired in Atlanta, civic leaders realized the city needed a way to move a lot of people around the city quickly. But politics, race relations, and our love affair with the car have all conspired to cripple the line meant to ease congestion.

In the 1950s, the push was on to sell residents of metro Atlanta on the idea of rapid transit. The GSU archives has a booklet put out in 1960 by the Atlanta Region Metropolitan Planning Commission, called “What You Should Know About Rapid Transit... a Basis for Community Discussion.”

Rapid Transit Booklet

It’s page after page of why the city needed to take the plunge and invest in rapid transit. Not every prediction came true: we did not need 120 expressway lanes radiating to and from central Atlanta by 1970. Although, there are times many of us have been sitting on the Downtown Connector dreaming of something kind of like that.

A report out just this week says Atlanta ranks fourth among cities with most aggressive drivers in the country. That doesn’t just make you grumpier when you get where you are going. The extra accelerating and braking can drain an extra $477 from your wallet in a year. 

We also did not build a monorail, or a people-mover. No doubt, some of the ideas look like something from the original Tomorrowland at Disneyland or maybe even the Jetsons. And they would have been a pretty cool way to get around the city.

But one idea put forth 59 years ago still rings true today: “Travel within the metropolitan area must be made easier if people are to shop, transact business, work, and take advantage of the opportunities offered by a BIG city.”

The PR machine worked at first. In 1965, the General Assembly voted to create MARTA as a system to serve the city of Atlanta as well as Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett Counties. The only voters who weren’t on board right away were in Cobb County. Everyone else was along for the ride.

But there was still no funding.

MORE: On the Right Track: MARTA Expansion Overview

They tried asking for the money using property taxes. Voters rejected that idea.

By 1971, Gwinnett County voters decided they were no longer interested and pulled out of the deal.

Finally, Atlanta’s mayor, Sam Massell, got the General Assembly to approve the idea of paying for MARTA with a special sales tax levied just in the places the transit served. And deals made to get that passed meant that no state money goes to pay for MARTA.

So if we’ve known for six decades how important rapid transit is to Atlanta, especially the suburbs, why have the people who live there resisted it?

Some say they fear MARTA will just bring crime into their neighborhoods. CBS46 looked into the real impact of rapid transit on a community.

A 2003 study in the Southern Economic Journal looked specifically at new MARTA stations and crime. It found a new rail station may result in higher crime in some areas – ones that are close to poorer neighborhoods. The study found that rail access often reduces crime, because it gives people a way to get to available jobs. It goes on to say, "There is no evidence… that suburban residents should fear that crime will rise in their neighborhood if rail lines are extended beyond central boundaries. It is ironic that rail access is actually found to reduce crime in the representative white suburban neighborhood, because most of the opposition to rail transit has come from white suburban residents. This opposition, however, may only have superficially have to do with concerns over crime. The real motivation may be racial bigotry."

The counties that voted against MARTA back when lawmakers were trying to get it going? They were overwhelmingly white; most who lived there had moved out of the city. A Georgia state legislator said in 1971 that suburbanites were thinking, “The reason I worked for so many years was to get away from pollution, bad schools and crime, and I’ll be damned if I’ll see it all follow me.”

MORE: On the Right Track: MARTA Expansion Overview

In 1987, the New York Times called out the issue on the national stage. In an interview with the paper, the then chairman of MARTA, J. David Chesnut, said “The development of a regional transit system in the Atlanta area is being held hostage to race, and I think it’s high time we admitted it and talked about it.”

He said whites in Cobb and Gwinnett Counties feared that MARTA’s trains would bring blacks and crime to their streets. People put bumper stickers on their cars that read “Share Atlanta Crime – Support MARTA.”

“When we talk about not expanding because of crime or something salacious could happen to a particular community that was done as propaganda to ensure that the more affluent communities that would receive a lot of these services would reject it,” said Dr. Tammy Greer, an adjunct political science professor at Clark-Atlanta University who specializes in urban politics.

She highlights that some attachments to cars and driving in the South result from the idea that ownership equals economic progress.

“Here in the south, wealth or money is associated with what you own. So you own a car, you own a home, a freestanding home, a single-family home,” Greer said. “To ride public transportation there is a subconscious message there that you do not have the means to own a car and because you don’t have the means to own a car then you are poor and poor here in the south is associated with some sort of criminal element in the south. To not have a car here in the south it means that you are unable to move forward from an economic standpoint,” she added, noting that perspectives are changing in younger generations.

Opinions are starting to shift. Owning a car is no longer the symbol it once was, at least to the younger generations. Greer told CBS46, “moving forward, it’s different for some of the younger generations, it’s different. Wealth is not associated with owning a vehicle.”

The other thing that is shifting? The very people calling the area home. More and more people are moving here from all over the country – including areas that have rapid transit. And to them, it’s not something for someone else to ride.

Chuck Button was the Gwinnett County Manager in the late 80's and early 90's when they did not pass a vote to expand MARTA with a 1% tax increase.

“We started off in the 90's, it was a short window to pass the referendum," Button said. He is a member of the pro-MARTA expansion group “Go Gwinnett.” “We had a little less than a 50/50 chance of going in to win. We still felt it was important back in those days,” he said.

Button said concerns about safety were an issue then that is still rearing its heads nearly two decades later.

MORE: On the Right Track: MARTA Expansion Overview

“After several public meetings, a lot of people complained about the additional one cent tax, but there were also a lot of issues around people thinking it would bring crime to the community, and we all know from a lot of studies since then that that’s not the issue,” Button said.

Now, nearly 20 years later, leaders believe it is time for a change as more people migrate to Atlanta, accustomed to mass transit as a normal way of life. Button told CBS46 “the amount of people who have moved in from all over the country, all over the world and they have a different perspective on mass transit and that’s bringing a cultural shift.”

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