Beach councilman calls for new light rail referendum

Virginia Beach Councilman Bob Dyer called for a new referendum on light rail Tuesday.

His request comes three years after Beach residents approved a referendum about extending light rail from Norfolk.

Dyer said new information “casting doubt” on light rail’s benefits has come out since the 2012 referendum, which he described as confusing and leaving the city without a clear picture of the voter’s preferred answer to the light rail question. He also mentioned a recently scuttled plan by Hampton Roads Transit to purchase four rail cars because they were determined to be incompatible with Norfolk’s system.

Dyer said a new referendum in November 2016 would provide clarity and “would go a long way in building the bridge of communication and mutual respect between the City Council and our citizens.”

Responses from other council members were terse or nonexistent. Mayor Will Sessoms said he would set a time for them to discuss the proposal later.

“This will be ongoing,” he said.

About 63 percent of Beach voters said yes in the 2012 referendum. It 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?”

“What was so confusing about that?” Councilman Ben Davenport asked.

Dyer replied with two arguments.

First, it was unclear to voters if they were telling the city to move forward with construction on light rail or not, he said. Second, “reasonable” could have meant something different to each of them, he added.

As its timeline stands now, the City Council will vote on whether to extend The Tide to Town Center when it has a more firm cost estimate — after the project has been designed further and bid out to contractors. That could be spring 2017, according to a tentative schedule.

“Our public deserves a stronger voice in the decision process,” Dyer said.

The project has been estimated to cost more than $300 million, though transit officials now think it will cost much less than that. The state has committed to paying $155 million.

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