The first statement I will make, probably will not surprise you— Forsyth County is unquestionably the fastest growing county in Georgia; not to mention we remain one of the fastest-growing counties in the country. This is not the first time Forsyth County News or many other Georgia news outlets have reported this. The next statement I will make will be embraced by some and shunned by others— It is time for a healthy debate about the future of transportation in our beloved county. Before you formulate an opinion, I would like to…
Last month, a MARTA referendum failed in Gwinnett County, even though poll after poll seemed to show signs of an increased desire for transit as well as a well-funded pro-transit campaign — backed by business interests and comprised of an array of coalitions across the political spectrum. There are many reasons why the referendum failed, some of the opponents of the referendum were motivated by a “distrust in MARTA” and the possibility of “tax hikes,” and supporters of the referendum only had one selling point, Congestion. The truth is, very few understood what a contract with MARTA might look like, and others simply failed to effectively articulate the transit plan with voters.
So back to that, “healthy debate about the future of transportation in our beloved county” statement that I was making, while Forsyth’s has no transportation vote in the foreseeable future, it will not be a matter of ‘yes or no,’ but ‘now or later.’
According to the Atlanta Regional Commission, Forsyth County is expected to almost double its population, reaching 430,301 residents by 2040. That’s just two short decades away. Furthermore, we live in the 7th largest, arguably most competitive and highly ranked school district in Georgia which is home to 39 schools, 6,000 staff members, and a whopping 49,657 students, a 215% growth increase between 2000 and 2018. If you think that number is going to slow down, think again. According to Forsyth County Schools, our county is projected to open a new elementary school in 2020, a new East Forsyth High School and a middle school in 2021, and two more schools in 2022. As the state’s fastest-growing county, we are already experiencing roads and transportation improvements, but if we learn anything from the failed planning of the Metro Atlanta Region, it should be that at some point, alternatives to cars, specifically public transit and bikes, must become part of the discussion, and yes the debate about the future of public transportation.
Then there is the issue of health. The air quality in Cumming is right around the national average. However, as our population increases, our air quality will decrease, partially due to the fact that more vehicles will occupy our roads, and commuting directly impacts our health. To put this in perspective, the average person in Cumming commutes 22.8 minutes one-way, which is still shorter than the US average of 26.4 minutes. For now, we can argue that our health and prosperity rivals our neighbors throughout the Metro Atlanta Region, however, more than 43% of Americans live in counties where the air is considered unhealthy— this unfortunately includes a few metro area counties that received failing grades for ozone pollution. According to the American Lung Association, DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties, all received“F’s” for ozone pollution. Ground level ozone in these counties is a direct result of chemical reactions between sunlight and pollutants from cars form hotter days.
Bottom-line, Forsyth County is changing, and change is never easy. It’s understandable that the pressures of a growing county will lead to heated and often endless debate, but this is a conversation we can not afford to ignore. The argument is not a decision between car ownership or transit, it is about building a smart city that can provide an infrastructure that attracts economic development and preserves the integrity of our county. The county is doing a hell of a job promoting walking and biking, but now it is time to go a step further, because change is inevitable, and if Forsyth doesn’t manage its growth well, the costs will be high. If the county chooses to restrict public transportation, by 2040 the damage will likely be irreparable, and we will run the risk of households paying thousands more per year for transportation, energy, and water than if the city embraces dense development and transit. If we embrace public transportation, we will likely continue to be a standard bearer in Georgia, and may even have the opportunity to compete with other U.S. counties as the best place to live.