In about a month, we’ll have a better idea of how Virginia Beach citizens feel about the potential of having a light-rail system. And supporters of the non-binding referendum are hoping they won’t be partying like its 1999. 

When voters were presented with a similar question 13 years ago, those opposed to any investment in light-rail carried the day with 56 percent. That, it seemed, was that. 

But as a recent Virginian-Pilot news story points out, that was then; this is now. 

The ’99 vote suffered from a combined lack of money, political support, and voter interest in an alternative to paying $1.50 a gallon for gas. And lacking an existing system nearby, the concept of light rail was also difficult to grasp. Most associated light rail with DC’s Metrorail or another “big city” system. So why on earth would a suburbanized jurisdiction like Virginia Beach need something like that? 

What a difference a decade makes. 

Not only does light rail enjoy a well-funded political action committee and advocates in government and the business community, it has an operating light rail system to connect with—Norfolk’s 14-month old 7.4-mile Tide—and a ready-made route in the form of a city-owned 10.8-mile former railroad right of way that could bring Tide cars to the famed Oceanfront, as well as to targeted development areas such as the Virginia Beach Town Center. 

An extension to Virginia Beach also has the backing of the Tide’s current riders, and supporters figure $3- and $4-something gas prices won’t hurt the cause either. 

Now, it should be noted that the outcome either way has no bearing on what’s already happening with light rail in Virginia Beach. 

Hampton Roads Transit, operator of the Tide, is in the middle of a $6.6 million study weighing the relative merits of not only a light rail extension, but also using the right-of-way for bus rapid transit or beefing up existing bus service. That study won’t be completed until 2014, and is unrelated to the referendum (the city recently pulled an informational video that many felt implied otherwise). 

It’s also one thing to back the concept of light rail, and quite another to support a specific plan. A full extension of the Tide could cost $807 million; since there’s no specific proposal yet, there’s no certainty where the money to pay for it will come from. (As reported earlier this year, a P3 is not out of the question.)  

Construction of the Tide’s original $317 million segment was also not without controversy, resulting in a major shake-up at Hampton Roads Transit.

So what will we learn from this referendum? Maybe nothing more than an acknowledgement that times change, and so do public attitudes. Projects can and do live to fight another day, particularly when backers can make a clear case for their value. 

They just have to remember that the pendulum of public opinion can just as easily swing the other way.