Virginia Beach City Council Still Unsure on Light Rail Even Though Voters Say Yes

City council members in Virginia Beach are still wrestling doubts over expanding light rail to Town Center and beyond.

According to the most recent reports from Hampton Roads Transit, the full cost of extending the Tide from Newtown Road in Norfolk to Town Center over the city line would cost the Beach around $327 million.

That estimate, in 2018 dollars, includes the cost of construction for the 3-mile rail line, an end station, four new rail cars, real estate acquisitions and the necessary modifications to the Tide control center to accommodate additional service. It also includes $7 million in potential contingencies still unaccounted for this early in the engineering phase.

The final number comes out to $279 million in today’s dollars. It doesn’t include the city’s annual public transportation costs, which would double, to about $11 million, to pay for its share of operating the line and expanding bus service to match train times.

To alleviate the strain on city coffers, the state has offered to pay 50 percent, up to $155 million, of the construction, and HRT assures current estimates will cost the city less than $100 million per mile of rail.

All the same, the final dollar amount still comes to more than the city of Norfolk paid for its seven miles of light rail, even including unexpected cost overruns – and that didn’t escape city council’s attention.

“I think it’s way too early to know what we should do,” said City Councilman Jack Moss at a city council workshop last week.

Even if the city chooses the Town Center destination, city council will still have to choose from four different endpoints in the development area: from west of Independence Boulevard to Constitution Drive.

Each destination comes with its own price tag and concerns.

While a station west of Independence means the line won’t have to jump the busy boulevard, a costly endeavor, the station would require a pedestrian bridge to access a parking lot on the site of the former Circuit City, which is east of Independence.

The easternmost station at Constitution Drive is centrally located near Town Center’s businesses as well as residential neighborhoods, but would have to jump or cross more than one street and take into consideration major public utilities that lie just below the ground.

“There’s still a lot of questions to be answered: location of the station, what the real cost is going to be,” said Vice Mayor Louis Jones, “and, more importantly, how we’re going to pay for it.”

Mayor Will Sessoms agreed.

Sessoms asked HRT staff when more solid numbers could be accounted for: “At what point could we go out and bid this project and get precise numbers? To me, when we can do that, that’s when we can really have good information and make sound decisions.”

HRT staff, however, said the numbers were about as good as they’d get for the time being.

“As you get further in the design phase, those contingencies will drop to a lower number,” said Ray Amoruso, HRT’s chief planning and development officer. “But at a 5 percent level, we have to factor these in.”

What HRT does know for certain is that Virginia Beach residents are using light rail, even if it isn’t in their city yet.

More than half of all riders embarking from the Tide’s easternmost station at Newtown Road identify as Virginia Beach residents, Amoruso told city council.

“More than half, and Norfolk pays for 100 percent,” he added.

Moss, among others, took offense at the suggestion the city is riding Norfolk’s coattails.

“We didn’t ask them to build it,” Moss said.

As far as ridership is concerned, HRT estimates by 2034 there will be 2,250 rides on the Virginia Beach line on an average weekday. Those numbers, HRT staff added, are often wildly underestimated.

Daily ridership in 2011 for the Norfolk line was projected at 2,900 passengers. Actual daily ridership by April 2012 was up to 4,900.

Beach Councilman Brad Martin pointed out that “Norfolk is a different dynamic.”

What works in the Mermaid City might not gel with commuters in the resort city.

Councilman Bobby Dyer said city council should see light rail as “a piece of a larger puzzle in the public transportation grid” aligned with bus, park-and-ride and other forms. He

suggested a referendum might be in order.

There are few remaining milestones left for the preliminary reports on light rail in Virginia Beach.

HRT will submit its full draft environmental impact statement to the Federal Transit Administration next month. Formal public comment on the project is expected to take place in early 2015.

Sessoms said he’s hoping the council will reach a decision before then, possibly as early as the first of the new year.

By Reynolds Hutchins
reynolds.hutchins@insidebiz.com

Full article from Inside Business: http://insidebiz.com/news/virginia-beach-council-still-questions-light-rail-extension

Disclosure: Keith Parnell is a member of the Board of Directors of the Hampton Roads Public Transportation Alliance.
Hampton Roads Public Transportation Alliance
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