Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Virginia Beach mayor: Hold LRT referendum

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Virginia Beach, Va. Mayor Will Sessoms on Wednesday called for a referendum this November to gauge public support for extension of The Tide LRT from neighboring Norfolk. Sessoms made his preference know n during his State of the City address.

"I know we have said that we would wait for a light rail study to be complete at the end of this year to decide which direction to take, but we have all The Tide's success, above and beyond what was anticipated," Sessoms said. "Therefore, I think the time is right to ask voters whether they would support bringing The Tide into Virginia Beach."

Hampton Roads Transit began revenue operation of The Tide last August, running Siemens S70 light rail vehicles over 7.4 miles through Norfolk amidst complaints from critics of capital costs (some of this justified; the final cost of $318.5 million was $106 million over original forecasts). Critics also predicted The Tide would fail to draw riders and bolster economic activity, but ridership, while fluctuating, has been above 4,000 rider trips per weekday, in general exceeding initial expectations.

Virginia Beach voters in 1999 turned down an opportunity for the city to be included in The Tide's initial startup. Hedging his support for LRT, Sessoms said voters need to weigh in before the city commits substantial resources toward any LRT extension. But the mayor did say, "Everywhere I go, people of all ages say, 'We have to get light rail in Virginia Beach.' I concur 100%."

Cost estimates for any such extension are about $800 million in current dollars for a full extension to the Oceanfront, with a more limited extension to the Town Center costing an estimated $254 million. Virginia Beach owns 10.8 miles of inactive rail right-of-way to use if it decides LRT is desired.