City looks to save on light rail by cutting federal ties

A light rail extension to Town Center could be built with foreign steel by workers making less than the prevailing wage in Virginia Beach — and that could reduce the project’s cost by $20.5 million, according to a city estimate.

The figure takes into account what expenses could be saved by not having to comply with Buy America provisions and wage standards under the Davis-Bacon Act, now that the city and state are pursuing the project with no federal money.

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 on Friday, Oct. 2, 2015. (Judah Taylor/Southside Daily)

The strategy became possible because state officials were able to change the sources of their $155 million commitment on the project this summer, so those funds included no money with federal ties to it, according to Julie Navarrete, the transportation development officer for Hampton Roads Transit.

The City Council in May selected a 3-mile light rail extension from Norfolk to Town Center as its preferred option in what has been a years-long study. That led to a $10.5 million contract this summer so more preliminary engineering can be done on the Town Center alignment before a final decision is made on whether to build the line.

The city’s tentative schedule anticipates a City Council vote on construction in spring 2017. Estimates by HRT have put the total cost of the project, including right-of-way acquisition and enhanced bus service to feed the line, at more than $300 million.

Beach Deputy City Manager Dave Hansen presented the $20.5 million estimate of savings from not needing to comply with Buy America or the Davis-Bacon Act in an update on the project in early September.

Cutting ties with federal funding sources also means local officials don’t have to complete certain documentation for the project under the National Environmental Policy Act, known as NEPA. Work will still continue toward a federal wetlands permit and on other environmental studies, Navarrete said.

No longer having to meet NEPA requirements will not accelerate the project’s timeline because most of the work now is tied to engineering, Navarrete said. Had officials discontinued its NEPA process earlier, they could have bypassed some requirements, such as formal public hearings, and streamlined a study of extension alternatives, including Bus Rapid Transit, she said.

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