Beach voters are not on board with light rail

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Print this page by Joan Tupponce
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The Tide runs more than 7 miles through Norfolk. Photo courtesy
Virginia Department of Transportation

Virginia Beach won’t be served by a light-rail transit system anytime soon. A referendum to extend The Tide, Norfolk’s rail system, 3.2 miles to Town Center in Virginia Beach was voted down in November. Although the referendum was not binding, Virginia Beach City Council promised to follow the voters’ will.

The proposal was opposed by No Light Rail in Virginia Beach, a group formed by Virginia Beach Treasurer John T. Atkinson.

“Norfolk spent $56 million for their portion of the light rail in 2011, and now they have a $9 million a year deficit. For a population of about 250,000 that works out to $38 for every man, woman and child in Norfolk to keep the light rail running. And, ridership in Norfolk is down,” Atkinson says. “Light rail doesn’t offer a valued service to citizens in Virginia Beach.”

Adding light rail in Virginia Beach will not eliminate traffic congestion, but “it will give us a bigger tax bill,” Atkinson says, noting that City Council passed a budget in 2015 that included a tax for light rail. “We have a special tax on the real estate tax bill amounting to $45 per $250,000 of assessed value for light rail even though we have never driven the first nail in the ground.”

This isn’t the first time light rail was put to a vote in Virginia Beach. Plans to build a rail transit were voted down in a 1999 referendum. A 2012 referendum to study the idea was approved.

Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms believes the cost of the $243 million extension — of which the city would be responsible for $88 million — scared people. The first estimates were as high as $326 million. “That’s what the opposition took and ran with, and they did a good job,” he says.

He saw the rail extension as a “vision for connectivity.”

“In Virginia Beach, we have strategic growth areas that are planned, and it would be more successful with light rail,” Sessoms says. “A multimodal system is needed for us to be successful 20 years from now.”

The city may now look at other rapid transit options such as express buses. “We still have a lot of options,” Sessoms says. “I am optimistic we will come up with a solution. The question is: When and also how we will pay for it?”

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