Virginia Beach city council discuss alternatives for light rail funds

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Virginia Beach city council met for the first time since the light rail referendum Tuesday to talk about how to move forward. (Justin Belichis/Southside Daily)

Virginia Beach city council met for the first time since the light rail referendum Tuesday to talk about how to move forward. (Justin Belichis/Southside Daily)

City funds that would have been used to extend light rail in Virginia Beach are estimated to reach more than $27 million by next June. That’s why city council brainstormed where that money could go at its meeting Tuesday, for the first time since last week’s referendum.

The tax revenue was collected from real estate taxes, a meal tax and automobile licenses, according to City Manager Dave Hansen’s projected light rail funding presentation.

Virginia Beach has to implement some form of mass transit along the old Norfolk southern right-of-way or reimburse the state for $20 million, which it gave the city to help purchase the track during the 2009 fiscal year. The city put $15.4 million toward the purchase.

“I think going forward we just have to be open-minded that there are new technologies beyond the horizon I think that the public will find a better fit that’s financially feasible, affordable and practical,” said councilmember Robert Dyer. “A lot of the people who were against light rail are for a transportation solution.”

Councilmembers pitched possibilities to invest in things ranging from more bus service, better paratransit services, investing in flood mitigation and an urban trail.

For councilmember Shannon Kane, it was about investing in city infrastructure.

“This money should go toward storm water and drainage … it’s going to protect the value of the homes, protect neighborhoods, protect citizens and we won’t have to have a repeat of what happened a few weeks ago,” Kane said. “We have plenty of needs, the money is there, let’s use it for what we need it for.”

But councilmember Rosemary Wilson said mass transportation in Virginia Beach is woefully under-served, especially the city’s current paratransit service.

“”Not everyone can afford to drive, not everyone can afford Uber, and we have [the right of way] that we still need to take advantage of,” said Wilson. “One of the things I’d like to know the cost of is if we get express buses.”

Councilmember John Moss said the city should look at how improving bus services will impact strategic growth areas throughout the city. Moss mentioned the possibility of implementing WiFi on buses as an example to attract choice riders.

“Buses definitely meet the density of our community,” Moss said.

Even Mayor Sessoms pitched ideas, including researching autonomously operated cars and an urban trail. But Sessoms said the city needs to provide more public transit, especially on the right-of-way corridor.

“I do think that we have the transit money that would allow for us to perhaps find a good bike trail plan, or something along those lines, on that right-of-way,” Sessoms said.

Whatever the money is spent on, councilmember James Wood said it shouldn’t be rushed.

“Good grief, we spent 10 years working on light rail,” Wood said. “I don’t think we should spend 20 minutes determining what the future is.”

So what happens to the $155 million that would have gone to light rail? The money is on the way to being reallocated, according to Nick Donahue, deputy secretary of transportation for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

A resolution the Commonwealth Transportation board adopted earlier this year indicated they would have strong consideration to reallocate funds if Virginia Beach did not move forward with the procurement for the light rail construction by the end of the year.

Donahue said based on wide margin by which the referendum didn’t pass, Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne wrote a letter to Mayor Will Sessoms the day after the election. It said that Layne would recommend that the funds set aside for light rail be reallocated to the second round of the statewide prioritization process, also known as smart scale.

“If the board concurs with the secretary’s recommendation, it will no longer be available for the city to move forward with light rail” said Donahue.

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