Back Bay Refuge study on water taxi, shuttle buses, paths nears completion

An 18-month study of new ways to access and get around the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge will wrap up in early December after public comments are collected.

This study, commissioned through a $449,000 grant from the Paul S. Sarbanes Transit in Parks Program, evaluated options for visitors to reach the refuge without using private motor vehicles, and provided cost estimates. The alternatives include a water taxi, shared-use paths, improved boat launches for canoes and kayaks, and a shuttle service.

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A map of the transportation alternatives studied for the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. (Courtesy of


The study will be distributed to city, state and federal officials so they can decide if they want to pursue any or all of the options. There presently is no funding for any of the ideas.

“Let’s say we’re starting at square two,” said Wayne Wilcox, a Virginia Beach Parks & Recreation senior planner, on Tuesday. “Square one was the study. Square two is finding the money.”

Wilcox presented the findings of the study on Monday to the city’s Open Space Advisory Committee. He called the work 95 percent finished, with the last portion being a public comment period that will go until Dec. 4. More information, including a link to submit comments, can be found here.

Presently, visitors are funneled from Sandbridge Road onto Sandpiper Road, Wilcox said. People also use both roads to get to the beach in Sandbridge and Little Island Park, creating a large amount of traffic, especially during holiday weekends, he said.

While the five options that were studied were viewed as stand-alone alternatives, several of them would work best if combined in some way, Wilcox said.

They include:

  1. The Back Bay Refuge Trail: a shared-use path for non-motorized options (i.e. walking, biking, skateboarding, etc). There would be four parts to the trail. The first is 1.7 miles of a 10-foot wide asphalt path from Albuquerque Drive to where it crosses over Sandbridge Road, but this will only be built if Nimmo Parkway is not extended. The second is .8 miles of path from Sandbridge to Sandpiper Road. The third is restoring the bike lanes to Sandpiper Road. Finally, there would be a 330-foot extension from Atwood Road in Lago Mar to the future Visitor Center in the Park. The capital costs are estimated at about $9 million with annual operating costs at $64,000.
  2. The Sigma Trail: another shared-use path divided into two segments. The first would be 0.5 miles running from Sandbridge Road to Lotus Drive. The second would be 1.9 miles on the south side of Sandbridge Road and would connect with the Back Bay Refuge Trail at that point. The capital costs are estimated at about $5.5 million with annual operating costs at $22,000.
  3. Shuttle Service: buses or vans that would have trailers attached for users’ bikes and canoes. It would run during the summer and would run from the current visitor contact station to the new visitor contact station to get through the park easier. There is also a proposed route from the Virginia Aquarium to the current visitor center in Back Bay Refuge. Proposed costs would be at least $12 a person, unless they find a way to subsidize the cost. The capital costs are estimated at about $90,000 with annual operating costs at $743,000.
  4. Water Access: the eight existing boat launch sites would be improved and updated, including an accessible slide at five of the sites. The capital costs are estimated at about $1.39 million with annual operating costs at $70,000.
  5. Water Taxi: pontoon boats from from Mill Landing to Barbour Hill to the Refuge Visitor Contact Center and back. Round-trip tickets are estimated to cost $25 for a round-trip and it would also run daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The capital costs are estimated at about $608,000 with annual operating costs at $130,000.

Wilcox said the next step for him is to work with the city if it decides to pursue any of the options.

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