Ahead of referendum, official opinions diverge on light rail

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A Tide light rail train at the Newtown Road Station on Friday, Oct. 2, 2015. (Judah Taylor/Southside Daily)
A Tide light rail train at the Newtown Road Station in 2015. (Judah Taylor/Southside Daily)

While the city awaits an Oct. 3 presentation from Hampton Roads Transit about the projected cost of extending Norfolk’s Tide light rail to Virginia Beach, City Council members and city officials expressed diverse views about the project last week, in interviews and at a council retreat.

On Nov. 8, Virginia Beach residents are slated to vote in a referendum on the roughly three-mile extension, which would go from Newtown Road to Town Center. But with a cost estimate from September 2015 floating a price tag of as much as $310 million, skepticism about the project remains, even though the state has said it will commit $155 million.

“I think Will [Mayor Will Sessoms] said it will all depend on what the cost was – if it came in at $310 million, he wasn’t going to support it,” Vice Mayor Louis Jones said in an interview Friday. “My train of thought was to say we need to wait and see how the referendum comes out and see what the cost was going to be and what effect it had on the overall transportation system.”

Sessoms sounded a similar theme at the City Council’s retreat Wednesday, saying the $310-million cost was one of the “biggest issues” and more “firm numbers” should be available Oct. 3.

The Oct. 3 presentation by Hampton Roads Transit will cover engineering designs and projected capital costs.

Another city official voiced support for the light rail extension, however, saying it would help make Virginia Beach more marketable to millennials and employers.

“If we don’t attract workforce, we will not attract jobs,” City Manager Dave Hansen said at the retreat. “You can beat be until I’m bloody, and I can’t create that economy – because private investment will not come here if there’s not a workforce. And if we don’t offer a choice of urbanized living for folks to do this, and make that connection, we will not be competitive.”

Hansen also stressed that the city builds projects based on quality, not price alone. He used the example of building a road by laying asphalt and placing stripes down the middle – “we don’t build roads like that in Virginia Beach,” he said.

More is added to the road, such as curves, storm-water management to treat polluted water, landscaping and bike paths. So an $18 million-dollar project can end up being $30 million, but last for more than 60 years and lead to economic growth, Hansen said.

Separately, two council members staked out positions.

Councilman Bob Dyer supports multimodal transportation, but not necessarily light rail, he said at the retreat.

I’m for a more elevated system that can also run north and south right down Lynnhaven,” Dyer said. “I’m looking at creating a more effective system, not light rail, per se.”

And Councilmember Jim Wood pointed to another source of possible funding.

If the City is truly serious about pursuing transit, it needs to support the dedicated funding for it, he said at the retreat.

An example of this type of dedicated funding could include portions of a tax that already exists, like a regional sales tax, he said in a phone interview Friday.