Beach budget retains light rail funding as Moss’ proposal fails

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)

An ordinance rerouting $10 million from a light rail expansion account into one used to offset a shortfall in next year’s budget died Tuesday. Sponsored by Councilman John Moss, it did not receive a second.

The proposal entered the council meeting with little chance of passing, but it nonetheless generated plenty of comment at a public hearing before the vote. Nine citizens addressed the council — six in favor of the ordinance and three against it.

Supporters of Moss’ ordinance said it would take money from what they described as a frivolous light rail project and use the funds to help alleviate something more important and more serious — the projected $33 million shortfall in next year’s city budget.

“Light rail cars are not a Christmas set of trains,” one speaker said.

Opponents of the proposal to reroute light rail funding said it was too early for such a move, as the city has months before the expected shortfall becomes a reality and years before light rail construction might start. They also said the action could delay research, denying the city and public information on light rail’s true cost and impact in the Beach.

Moss described the ordinance as “agnostic” to the light rail question and to concerns raised by both groups.

He said his proposal would not touch money used for engineering or design, which represent the only types of work being done currently on the light rail project. It would remove $10 million from light rail funding that won’t be spent this year and which could end up as surplus, he said.

Those dollars were originally deposited for the purchase of rail cars at the behest of the state, which later said it would buy the cars.

Explaining the ordinance, Moss said: “In its simplest terms, it’s like saying you had money put aside to buy a car. Then all of a sudden you inherited money to buy the car and you put the money back in your savings account.”

One opponent of the ordinance and light rail, Joe Belec, said there wasn’t enough information for him to make a good decision.

Councilman Bob Dyer, a light rail critic, said he agreed with Belec, which was why he is pushing for the city to launch a series of workshops that would educate the public and its leaders on the issue. He said he hopes Virginia’s transportation secretary and officials from Hampton Roads Transit attend.

As such, Dyer said he supported the discussion of but not the passing of Moss’ ordinance, which was submitted last week just minutes after Dyer called for a new referendum on The Tide’s expansion from Norfolk to Town Center.
“I’m with (the ordinance) in principle, but not process,” he said.
Dyer had said that a previous referendum held in the city was confusing and that people’s minds might have changed based on new information.

Richard Dunning, who spoke in support of Moss’ failed ordinance, agreed with those statements Tuesday.

“Asking the voters if they want light rail before they know the cost of light rail — $100 million per mile — is like asking a child if they want a cookie,” Dunning said.

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