Thirteen years ago, in 1999, Virginia Beach voters turned down a referendum on bringing light rail service to the oceanfront.
It was also about the same time that the city’s “downtown” Town Center dream was fast becoming a reality, with much of the city’s business community focused on that economic development achievement.
And now, in the wake of The Tide’s commercial success and Town Center’s tourism and retail success, calls are being heard once again to “connect-the-dots” and extend the state’s first and only light rail system from Norfolk to the Resort City. Another non-binding public vote on the issue could occur this fall.
Attempting to transcend the controversial issue’s emotionalism and politics, Hampton Roads Transit, which owns and operates The Tide, is studying the costs, risks and benefits to the city, region and state, should the Virginia Beach City Council vote to allow the 7.4-mile system to stretch to Town Center and the Oceanfront, which could cost $254 million and $807 million, respectively. The Tide’s service line now ends at the Norfolk city line at Newtown Road.
Attempting to offset the financial and political challenges of funding such an expensive project, local officials have asked the state to add light rail to a project list for potential public-private partnerships, similar to one that may bring tolls to the Downtown and Midtown tunnels.
The Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization, whose director is Dwight Farmer, has asked the Virginia Office of Transportation Public-Private Partnerships to include light rail on its wish list, while the state is actively soliciting private funds for public transportation projects.
Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms and former HRT board chairman and Councilman Jim Wood have publicly endorsed the idea, while Councilman John Moss and many of his constituents are publicly opposed.
If light rail eventually migrates into the city, it could follow a city-owned 10.8-mile inactive Norfolk Southern right-of-way running from Newtown Road to Birdneck Road, which stops about a mile from Atlantic Avenue.
Financial details of a light rail partnership for have not been publicly discussed, but if plans are worked out, project construction could be a decade away.