Virginia Beach light rail extension referendum fails

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City project light rail will bring jobs

Virginia Beach voters decided against a light rail extension Tuesday. (Judah Taylor/Southside Daily)

Virginia Beach Treasurer and No Light Rail organizer John T. Atkinson claimed victory Tuesday night after a 17-month campaign to derail the Tide’s extension from Newtown Road to Town Center.

“We have won a light rail victory,” Atkinson said. “Fifty-seven percent of [voters] have said ‘don’t build it.’”

Atkinson said he’s happy the campaign is over with and looks forward to a rest.

By Wednesday morning, with all but one precinct reported, 57 percent of Virginia Beach voters said they do not want light rail.

Joash Schulman, secretary of Light Rail Now, said he is impressed with the people who have been passionately involved on both sides of the issue.

“These numbers are not where we hoped they would be,” Schulman said after the vote. “We fought as hard as we could and regardless of the results, we are still members of the community.”

The project was estimated to cost $243 million, with the state covering $155 million. It could have been ready to ride by 2019, according to the Virginia Beach website.

In a 2012 city council referendum to adopt an ordinance approving efforts to create financing and development plans for the light rail in Virginia Beach, 62.7 percent voted in favor of it, according to a presentation by Brian Solis, transportation and transit planning manager.

In May 2015, the Virginia Beach City Council voted 9-2 for an extension to lead to Town Center, along with four other projects to improve public transportation.

Although a recent city report said a light rail extension could create 10,500 more jobs, and another report claimed there could be a $165 million increase in tax revenue, local groups like Drains Not Trains and  No Light Rail spearheaded the opposition.

One of the key issues was money allocation. The city has spent $21 million on water improvement every year since 2013 –  about 24 percent of what the city would pay for the light rail extension, said Virginia Beach communications administrator Julie Hill.

Meanwhile, the city estimated there are over $50 million in damages to Virginia Beach from Hurricane Matthew.

Ridership was also a hot topic circling the potential extension. The city estimates that about 32,000 people ride the light rail weekly. According to the city’s website, the light rail extension could increase ridership by 2,250.

Traffic congestion was another issue the light rail extension aimed to defuse. But at a forum hosted by Tidewater Community college last week, speakers in opposition of the light rail extension said traffic congestion would only get worse because of the construction and doubled bus services.

At a Nov. 1 Virginia Beach City Council meeting, Councilman John Moss said Portland, a city comparable to Virginia Beach, is the 12th most congested city in America despite its light rail system.

Here’s what would have happened if the light rail extended to Town Center:

Tracks, trains and stations

The extension will start with the basics. That’s three and a half miles of new track, new trains and three proposed stations at Witchduck Road, Kellam Road ad Constitution Drive. Only the proposed Witchduck Road and Constitution Drive stations will have park-and-ride lots. This phase alone will cost $243 million to build, according to a city cost estimate.

Pedestrian walkways

Two proposed paths would have run parallel to extended light rail tracks – a sidewalk on the north side and  a shared-use path on its south side.

Doubled bus services

The city would have doubled bus services, with more evening and weekend services and new routes. These new routes could have included a bus to and from the Witchduck station through Kempsville and the Greenbrier area, one from the Oceanfront to TCC and an express route from the Oceanfront the Town Center. There would also have been increased paratransit services to the elderly and disabled.

Changes in bus infrastructure

The city approved $680,000 to build new bus shelters throughout the city. According to Solis’ Nov. 1 light rail extension update, there are about 30 sheltered stations out of 500 in the city.

Connecting the community is a puzzle piece in Mayor William Sessoms’ “Envision Virginia Beach 2040” report published in 2012. This vision includes “a well-planned light rail system and a network of bike paths and pedestrian walkways interconnect our neighborhoods and provide access for all citizens to all parts of the City.”

 

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