To paraphrase the slogan about orange juice, P3s are not just for highways anymore.

At least that’s the case in Virginia, where Transportation Public-Private Partnerships Director Tony Kinn sees his office as a “corporate business development arm” that is proactively developing proposed projects across all modes of transportation.

“We’re working with other agencies to put together plans that can move forward, and make sure projects fit,” Kinn said during an interview for the recent ENR cover story on the past, present, and potential of P3s.

The City of Virginia Beach is hoping that Kinn’s office can find that kind of compatibility for a long-talked light rail line.

Earlier this month, the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization asked that the project be included as a potential P3 candidate. A Virginia-Pilot story notes that the request doesn’t mention a specific strategy, but is intended to “start the conversation” about what private-sector involvement could do to move the project forward.

Following Virginia Beach residents’ thumbs-down of a 1999 referendum on light rail, then estimated to cost nearly $1 billion, public opinion about light rail has waxed and waned over the years, often in step with gas prices. Nor did subsequent cost overruns and accusations of mismanagement associated with construction of Hampton Road Transit’s 7.4-mile Tide light rail system do much to win over converts.

Still, a city-owned 10.8-mile inactive railroad right of way at the terminus of Hampton Road Transit’s newly opened 7.4-mile Tide light rail system nevertheless offers a tempting head-start for extending the service to the Virginia Beach oceanfront.

And time and experience has a habit of healing old wounds. The Tide opened to rave reviews in late August 2011, evening managing to shave $20 million off the revised $338 million construction cost.

The system has so far exceeded ridership projections, and is expected to reach 7,200 daily riders by 201516 years ahead of schedule. Convenience stores businesses near the Tide’s stations also attribute an uptick in sales to the coming and going of light rail commuters. (True, Slurpees and snacks may not be the hallmarks of transit-oriented development, but you have to start somewhere.)

The Tide’s initial performance will be factored into a feasibility study that Hampton Roads Transit is currently developing for submittal to the Federal Transit Administration next year. That will also help officials get a better handle on the project’s potential pricetag, and who might be interested in helping pay for getting it built.

Given Virginia’s encouragement of unsolicited proposals, raising private-sector awareness about the possibilities of light rail in Virginia Beach may be just what the project needs in these tax-averse times when public funding for transit is far more famine than feast.   

“Good ideas can come from anywhere,” Kinn observed earlier this year, “and if the private sector sees a new opportunity or sees something we’ve missed, that can only help the process.”