VIRGINIA BEACH — Councilman Bob Dyer handed out out a draft resolution at Tuesday’s council meeting that would send the light rail question to voters in 2016 — four years after residents responded affirmatively on a prior referendum on the issue.
Dyer, who believes the previous ballot was confusing, said the new one would ask: “Should the City Council adopt an ordinance approving the expansion of The Tide light rail system into the City of Virginia Beach?”
Some councilmembers immediately responded that they would like to amend the wording. Others expressed doubt that it needs to be asked in November — before accurate cost estimates will be available — or at all. Dyer told them he’s open to suggestions on the wording but wants to see the resolution voted on in early January, after a workshop.
“I think this will be one of the most important decisions this body will ever make,” Dyer said.
He added that a referendum in 11 months would give the public an opportunity to educate itself on a complex project that’s still evolving. The city has not yet approved the project, which has been estimated to cost as much as $310 million, to extend Norfolk’s rail system about three miles to Town Center.
Dyer put forward the resolution two months after he proposed it, and one week after state Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne told the City Council that if a referendum delayed the city’s timeline on the light rail project, the city would lose $155 million of state funding for it. Layne attended the council’s Nov. 24 meeting after Dyer said it would be good for the council to hear from him. On Tuesday Dyer said council members should next hear from local economist and Old Dominion University professor James Koch.
Councilman John Uhrin said Dyer’s proposed question would be easy to answer only for voters who are already for or against light rail “at any cost.” Those who will want to weigh the price of the project in determining how they vote would not be able to answer on Election Day 2016.
“That’s about four months before we would have answers to the cost questions,” Uhrin said. “As a voter, it would be hard for me to answer that question without knowing what the cost would be.”
The city won’t know how much the project will cost until design is done and bids on it are returned by developers. That could be sometime in 2017.
Councilman John Moss said the cost was irrelevant, both because he does not think new information will change people’s minds and because he views light rail as “an economic waste” that would not deliver economic development or alleviate traffic congestion. He said he would co-sponsor Dyer’s resolution.
The 2012 referendum drew a “yes” vote from 62.7 percent of voters. That asked: “Should the City Council adopt an ordinance approving the use of all reasonable efforts to support the financing and development of The Tide light rail into Virginia Beach?”
Dyer said there is more information now about light rail technology and its potential impacts on the Beach than there was for voters in 2012, when the city most recently asked citizens about extending The Tide from Norfolk. Another non-binding referendum would engage citizens again and be only one tool the council uses to make a final decision, with actual costs being another, he said.
Councilwoman Rosemary Wilson said a different question needed to be asked, one that might use some of that new information. She said she would have a hard time voting for Dyer’s resolution as it stands, but she is open to exploring different wording.
Dyer said he is, too.
A petition to force a similar question onto the 2016 ballot outside of council action was passed around by citizens in the council chambers later in the meeting. The organizers of that effort said in early November that they had about 10,000 signatures, about a third of the amount they must gather in the next eight months.