Virginia Beach can’t alter light rail timeline if it wants state money, transportation official says

VIRGINIA BEACH — State Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne told the City Council Tuesday that if it slows work on its light rail project for a referendum or anything else it could lose $155 million in state funding.

That money amounts to about 15 percent of the $1 billion Layne said the state highway department has to fund projects statewide. It is half the estimated cost of the Beach’s proposed light rail project, which would extend The Tide from the end of its line in Norfolk at Newtown Road to Town Center by 2020.

Layne’s comments mirror what he told Southside Daily about a month ago, after Councilman Bob Dyer called for a second referendum on bringing light rail to the city and for workshops informing Beach voters and elected officials on the pros and cons of doing so. Layne said then, and again on Tuesday, that the state had received $7 billion in requests for transportation projects across Virginia, and it had only $1 billion to give.

“If you get off the schedule we’re on then we will move the money,” Layne said.

He added he was not trying to make a threat but rather conveying budget realities.

The city has not approved the light rail project. It is currently doing engineering work to determine the extension’s cost, and won’t know the true cost until the project is bid out. Layne has said he believes it will be much lower than a previous estimate of $310 million.

The city’s tentative light rail schedule is as follows:

  • Summer 2016 to Fall 2017: Final environmental documents and complete 30 percent preliminary engineering design plans.
  • Spring 2017: City Council vote to approve or disapprove construction.
  • Summer 2017 to Summer 2019: Construction.
  • Summer 2019 to Fall 2019: Testing.
  • Winter 2019/2020: Light rail service to Town Center begins​.

After the presentation, Mayor Will Sessoms said he thinks city will stick to that timeline “referendum or no referendum” and won’t lose the state money. He said the project is critical to the health of the city and region.

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