Virginia Beach voters may have the opportunity in November to weigh in bringing light rail to its Town Center. Again.
If this sounds like a familiar story, it’s probably because the City held a similar, albeit non-binding referendum on the matter in 2012. In that vote, more than 60 percent of voters endorsed a three-mile extension Hampton Roads Transit’s Tide LRT system from its current terminus in Norfolk, mostly along a former freight rail right of way. Estimates published in 2015 put the project cost somewhere between $240 million and $327 million. The City’s FY2016 budget devotes $20 million to the project
That hasn’t been enough to quell opposition to the project, led by Virginia Beach’s Treasurer. A petition drive conducted during at polling stations during the state’s March 2 presidential primary claimed to have collected more than 21,000 signatures asking for another light-rail referendum. (Approximately 16,500 are needed for the proposal to be put before voters this November.)
The petition coincided with an effort by five Virginia Beach City Council members to draft their own referendum, which would clear the way for light rail project only if no tax increase is required for its construction or operation.
If the City Council members aren’t happy with the light rail project, the state’s transportation officials are equally displeased with the idea of more public votes. Last month, Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne threatened to pull the state’s $155 million contribution to the extension if the City schedules another referendum on light rail.
Layne has since softened his opposition, saying the City can go forward with a vote as long it agrees to continue pursuing light rail by April 30. That would include maintaining funding for Hampton Roads Transit’s preliminary engineering, and the purchase of rail cars.
The City Council is scheduled an April 5 vote on that deal.