Virginian Pilot Publishes Editorial on Light Rail - August 28, 2015
Engineering studies on the proposed expansion of light rail to Town Center are still nearly 18 months away. Reliable cost estimates will come after that.In the meantime, members of the Virginia Beach City Council should spend time with residents in town hall meetings, talking about strategic planning, what the city’s future growth will look like and how light rail changes Virginia Beach.
Councilwoman Barbara Henley suggested the citywide discussions during Monday’s council retreat, noting that Virginia Beach’s comprehensive plan is predicated on transit.
The comprehensive plan approved in 2009 identifies eight areas of the city that are, or could be, centers for commercial, residential and work life. Three are along the 3.2-mile rail right-of-way between Newtown Road, Norfolk’s eastern light rail terminus, and Town Center.
The city’s plan: To redevelop them into the kind of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that baby boomers and millennials have said they prefer to car-centric suburban ones. In the process, they protect the city’s car-centric suburban neighborhoods from growth pressures.
Vice Mayor Louis Jones asked two questions the city needs to answer: “What is the end goal to building light rail, ... and how are we going to make it happen?”
Light rail won’t turn Virginia Beach into New York City; it simply gives people choices in how they live and how they get around.
Light rail would provide transportation between Virginia Beach’s central business district and Norfolk’s downtown. It would be the catalyst for redevelopment on Town Center’s periphery, where two stations are planned, and along Cleveland Avenue to Witchduck Road, where another station would be.
A bike and walking path would be built beside the tracks, providing another way for residents to move.
The state has committed $155 million to extend The Tide into Virginia Beach and has offered as much as $30 million in state infrastructure loans at 1.5 percent interest.
Based on very preliminary designs, Hampton Roads Transit last year estimated the extension would cost $327 million — an amount City Councilman Jim Wood says he will not support.
Wood, the city’s representative on the HRT board, expects the cost to be closer to $230 million, but the figures won’t be known until engineering designs and final environmental documents are complete.
Virginia Beach needs to wait for those numbers before determining whether to pursue rail or drop it, but it should be asking owners of property near the stations what they plan to do with their land. What would development look like? Apartments? Shopping? Office buildings? How much will it cost the city to provide services, and how much tax revenue will be generated by the development?
Charlotte, which debated whether to build a light rail line for nearly 15 years before voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase, opened a 9.6-mile line in late 2007 and is building a 9.3-mile extension.
The line kicked off an apartment-building boom. One developer is planning as many as 800 residential units in two developments near one station. Near another station yet to be built, the company is planning two hotels, a Whole Foods, apartments, an office tower and tens of thousands of square feet of retail.
Charlotte, Beach Councilman Ben Davenport noted, has seen $7 billion in investment along its light rail line.
It’s a major reason Clark Nexsen architecture and engineering firm moved to Town Center last year — because employees wanted access to The Tide.
That’s one end goal for Virginia Beach. City leaders — and the residents and property owners affected by these changes — need to talk about others.
© August 28, 2015