Beach light rail referendum effort closing in on 10,000 signatures

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)

A petition to put a second light rail referendum to Virginia Beach voters has garnered nearly a third of the necessary signatures with about nine months to gather the rest.

No Light Rail Virginia Beach CEO Steven Miyares said Monday the political action committee has confirmed that it has about 7,500 valid signatures from the petitions it presented outside polls at last week’s election. That number could rise to about 10,000 as more signatures are checked, he said.

Miyares said that number was enough to give him hope that they’ll get enough signatures to put the nonbinding question on the ballot next year. In all, they need signatures from 27,000 registered voters in the city.

“We think we came out of the gate strong,” Miyares said, adding the group will reach out to churches and civic groups to gather enough signatures to cross the finish line.

The referendum would ask: “Should the City Council of Virginia Beach spend local funds to extend Light Rail from Norfolk to Town Center in Virginia Beach?”

The group has until 81 days before Election Day 2016 to turn in the signatures they need to force the referendum, he said. He said his goal is 35,000 to allow room for invalid signatures.

Miyares said the petition’s aim is to “give a voice” to citizens to speak up on light rail ahead of any future City Council vote that would extend the line from Norfolk to Town Center. He and the group are against the project.

Will Christopher, a light rail advocate who organized a ‘Save the Tide’ group to rally against petition-holders at some polls, said he did not want to comment on Miyares’ announcement because he wants to “keep the energy positive.”

“If I say anything about it like that, I’m afraid it will embolden them,” he said.

Though nonbinding, the referendum could jeopardize essential state funding for the project, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne has said. The City Council must still approve the project before construction can begin. Hampton Roads Transit spokesman Tom Holden said the deadline for the signatures to force a referendum will come before HRT can release an updated estimate for the project’s cost.

Virginia Beach has been exploring the possibility of extending Norfolk’s rail line – The Tide – since a 2012 referendum, in which voters gave the city their blessing.

Early estimates said extending the rails to Town Center would cost more than $300 million, about $155 of which would be covered by the state.

But many transportation officials think the cost will be much lower. HRT will release an updated estimate around September 2016, according to Holden. That estimate will come after 30 percent of the project has been designed by engineers.

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