Questions about the Light Rail Question

Regarding light rail, Virginia Beach, you may rest a little easier knowing that you may have a choice in the matter come November 6th.The problem is you may not know what your choices are.

Virginia Beach City Council has finalized the wording that is to appear on the ballot in the form of a question; but while the previous questions were ambiguous, this one is downright nubilous.

In case you didn’t know, the question of light rail has been previously voted down in Virginia Beach–by the City Council in 1989, and by referendum in 1999. But now that “The Tide” is up and running, some people think the question needs to be asked again. I agree. But the way Virginia Beach is going about their query is going to leave either a lot of surprised constituents, disappointed constituents, or angry constituents.

The previous question to appear on the ballot was “Should the City Council adopt an ordinance approving the expansion of The Tide light rail system into the City of Virginia Beach?

An average voter might say, “Sure! Go ahead! Why not?” In a cost/benefit analysis of this question alone, there is absolutely no cost, and infinite potential benefit. They might as well have asked, “Should the City Council adopt an ordinance approving the expansion of Interstate 264 to eight lanes in each direction?”

Obviously there are many things wrong with this question, so the Council tried to fix it. Now the question reads, “Should the City Council adopt an ordinance approving the use of all reasonable efforts to support the financing and development of The Tide light rail into Virginia Beach?

Now there is at least a hint of monetary cost (“financing”), but the question went from being an affable  question one friend might ask another while sitting in a bar, to a question steeped in legalese and undefined terms. There can be too many definitions of “all reasonable efforts.” And ultimately it will be the City Council who will determine what “all reasonable efforts” are. It is a license to build without any preconditions.

“Support the financing and development” of light rail, or “finance and develop” light rail? Why the former and not the latter? How will the city “support?” Who will be the principal financer and developer?

Councilman Glenn Davis believes this newer question “is very direct and pointed.” I’m not sure I agree with Mr. Davis. It invites too many questions. (In July of 2010, Mr. Davis was against a referendum altogether. He more recently “questions the value” of this referendum.)

But even if we sort through the language of either question, there are much larger questions that the public might want answered: How much will it cost? What is the route?

There are currently two estimates available to the public right now: one that extends The Tide from Newtown Road to Virginia Beach Town Center ($254 million); and one that goes to the Oceanfront ($807 million). These are not small numbers; and while certainly the city would try to get federal and state aid for such a project (which does come from VB taxpayer money), the balance falls directly upon the residents. Or perhaps through Public-Private Partnerships. We don’t know. Furthermore, these numbers will not be on the ballot, which will not assuage Councilman Bill DeSteph’s reservations.

The other big question is, what will its specific route be? I am sure there are many residents who might vote affirmatively to the question on the ballot–unless they knew the track would either displace them or place their property closer to rail than they preferred Again, we don’t know the route. This would all be determined at a later period. Who will be subject to the controversy of eminent domain? I realize that many of these specific questions cannot be answered until the Council actually approves an ordinance to expand light rail, but it might be a good idea to give the voters a proposal before asking them to play Russian Railette with their property.

The referendum itself is strictly advisory, meaning that theoretically the popular vote could be 90-10 against light rail and the City Council could vote for light rail on their own. With so many unanswered questions and undetermined variables, why rush to get this on the ballot? Why not wait until some of these answers and details are more available to those who will be affected? The HRT study on the project will not even be completed until next year.

The reason is simple: supporters of light rail believe the November 6th election, with a larger turnout, will decide the question in their favor.

This is irresponsible. A hasty vote to pander to a favorable demographic (those that only vote in Presidential elections) should not be the next step in light rail development in Virginia Beach. Irregular or quadrennial voters are not as likely to be engaged on issues, and thus may not even bother to think of asking the nagging questions about language, route, and cost. City Council will vote to place the question on the November ballot on April 24th.

Light rail should be discussed in Virginia Beach, but it should not be done impulsively, impetuously, or inelaborately.

  • Mike Barrett

    So Andrew, it is quite obvious from your article that you don’t get out to the Beach very often. If you did you would know, like all the rest of us, where the route is located. But lacking awareness, why not just call up your fellow blogger Brian Kirwin and ask him before you make such a fool of yourself posting such drivel?

    Since the General Assembly authorized and funded the study of extending light rail to Virginia Beach, and it passed the GA by a near unanimous vote, it has bi-partisan support as well as support of a super majority on the City Council. Further, every objective poll has shown wide support for the extension of light rail into Virginia Beach.

    Further, rather than depend upon another government estimate, why shouldn’t voters depend upon actual construction costs, actual operating costs, actual ridership, especially at the Newtown Station (Andrew, that is steps from the Beach line), and a ROW costs that has been predetermined by the purchase of the former N & S rail line through Virginia Beach?

    You criticize the decision to put this on a referendum as impulsive, yet the referendum would be November 6th, plenty of time for voters to get all the information they need to make an informed decision, and if they do, they will have far more quality information than voters had in 1999.

    So Andrew, is it possible to withdraw your post? If so, please do. I would be pleased to join you at ODU someday to give you a Beach perspective so you don’t appear so out of touch the next time you post on this topic.

  • Matt

    Yes Mike I would like to know what the actual costs are before I vote either for or against the Light Rail project. Is it going to have huge over runs and delays like the line in Norfolk? Are we to trust HRT to get it right this time? What about more than just the actual costs but the costs that the construction will take on people having to sit in more traffic on the roads while this project is being built? How long is it going to take?

  • Matt

    I still think about this everytime Mike Barrett talks about light rail and how great it will be:

  • Eric McGrane

    Light rail is a failure just about everywhere it is implemented. From the stats I saw a year, only a couple lines in the highly polulation-dense northeast actually turned a profit.

    Official prediction: Light rail implementation will wildly exceed budget. A few years go by while people say “it takes a few years to become profitable”, during which time there will be large operating losses. However, it won’t EVER turn around. Soon revitalization/maintenance dollars will be required, mandating that Virginia tax payers are soaked a second time. Ridership continues to decline. Losses get larger, requiring more subsidy. Eventually the line will become such a huge liability that it can’t be ignored. However, this won’t matter because all the folks that ignored the history of failure in light rail will be long gone, leaving tax payers with a never-ending money hole.

    This is the future of light rail…..because this is CURRENT state of light rail.

    bbbut Virginia will be DIFFERENT !!!


  • Mike, please direct me to where a route is. I know about the old Norfolk Southern railway, but that only takes it to Birdneck (and don’t tell me properties surrounding that stretch won’t be affected!). What’s the plan to the Convention Center and to the oceanfront?

    It is impulsive because they are asking voters to answer a question without all the details–and they won’t be available until HRT’s study is complete next year.

    I’m not necessarily for or against extending the rail–but these are questions I had. And when proponents of the light rail are touting a wide turnout of quadrennial voters being favorable to their cause, I have to wonder if that’s gamesmanship or a wise decision for the city.

    I’m not gonna argue with you on this one, Mike. Your points are well-taken, trust me. But, like I said, there’s no good reason I know of to hold this referendum on Nov. 6th when more accurate and complete cost information will be available in the months following.

  • LittleDavid

    My vote is going to be no.

    I think it is going to end up being a boondoggle. I once thought that if a commitment could be made to more extensive network, I could support it. No longer.

    Today, while I was sitting getting my truck unloaded not more then 20 feet from the Dallas, TX light rail line I figured I would look into how successful their system is. Despite an extensive and very expensive network, the system is failing due to lack of riders.

    If Dallas can’t make it work with a first class effort, then we can’t make it work in our area either. Down there they are doing everything right, eliminating all of the excuses, and still they can not get enough riders.

    I’m going to learn from their experience and save the bucks we could spend to learn the same lesson.

    My vote is going to be NO.

  • ToR


    Maybe you could point out one DOT, in the entire country, or at the Federal level that turns a profit. Heck, maybe you could find one in another country, somewhere, maybe, possibly?

  • As a partner with a medium sized developer, I can tell you first hand that light rail is like catnip for developers with land next to or near rail. They are the only winners. Of course that is why the developers with property bordering on the lines proposed for rail are generously supporting democrat Will Sessoms.

  • Brian Kirwin

    Andrew, Andrew, Andrew.

    I must’ve missed your post complaining that the eminent domain amendment didn’t include the costs in the question.

    What? That’s different? You were in favor of that referendum, so you didn’t need to apply the same scrutiny?


  • By the way, when Council voted to put light rail in November 1999, they did so in AUGUST.

    Somehow, doing so in April is “irresponsible????”

    Andrew, have you ever read one of these “studies?” Have you noticed that the opponents to light rail have made up their minds without waiting for the study that they want everyone else to wait for?

    It’s amazing that you write an entire post predicated on the idea that you think the voters are dumber than you are.

  • Brian E

    The eminent domain amendment is a cost decision the city needs to consider when they are taking away people’s personal property. Should we attach a cost to the Fifth Amendment?

    …and it appears that someone is supporting light-rail. It is a failure everywhere except when you calculate arbitrary expenses like environment, then it’s comparable to vehicles.

    The trolley system was replaced by cars, why would we want to go backwards? Thanks for giving Obama another campaign cheer. Also, why would someone need a study to tell them what to think? That is unless they are dumbed down. We all know light rail doesn’t work.

    You know as well as anyone that November’s election is going to have a dumb down public, full of propaganda and lies along with the light-rail/trolley study.

    Opponents have made up their mind because light-rail does not work. That is unless you’re trying to remove people from their vehicles with high tolls, high gas prices and expensive cars…then we will have a viable public transportation system.

    Otherwise, it’ll work like the HOV lanes did…and still do.

  • Brian E, I’m not the one saying we should attach the costs to the light rail referendum. Andrew is. Ask him.

  • Steve Vaughan

    BK- Sort of surprised to see you taking that side. Usually public transportation is a Democratic fetish.

    One I’ve never understood, except I guess some people want us to be more “like Europe.”

    I’ve been to Europe. Yes, they have an amazing light rail system.

    Europe is different from America. Americans don’t like to stand in line and they like to go where they want to go when they want to go there. I don’t see that changing.

    That’s why every system of Mass Transit in the US is taxpayer subsidized. If there was a great demand for light rail, it would pay for itself. It doesn’t.

  • Brian E

    Brian Kirwan,
    I agree that there should be a cost attached to the referemdum for the light-rail, the city wishes to spend alot of money and they should justify their costs for this obsolete form of transportation.

    My statement was that there can’t be a cost of the Eminent Domain Amendment because the city has to assess the cost when they go to take someone’s property.

    I agree with Andrew that this light-rail boondoggle is just that. Just as the HOV lanes of the 1990s, we have the trolley system of 2011… or 1999… or 1989…

    Take your pick!

    It’s still a pig in lipstick.

  • Mike Barrett

    I am amazed that conservatives on this page would be opposed to the voters having the opportunity to express their opinion about the extension of light rail into Virginia Beach. As to impulsive, as Brian K. has pointed out, this is April, the referendum is proposed for November 6th, so what is your definition of impulsive?

    Further, conservatives for decades have embraced transit and traditional neighborhood design and have rejected heavily tax subsidized suburban landscapes created by big highways and sprawl. Fact is, at the Beach, we are out of greenfields for more suburban development and we can no longer afford to build McMansions farther out in the rural landscape and to subsidize the provision of public services for them.

    And Andrew, if you had bothered to attend the public hearing on the draft EIS, you would know that there are three options for the eastern Beach segment; Birdneck to 19th Street, Norfolk Avenue then north through the trailer park site; or Birdneck to the Boulevard, then through the Convention Ceneter parking, then east on 19th past the Convention Center to Pacific Avenue. No condemnation required at all; in fact, developers want the stations on their sites and will compete for them.

    Of course, when Norfolk extends the line to ODU and the Naval Base, and we extend east through Virginia Beach, your employer will benefit as well. Seriously, instead of compounding your problem, let me and Brian take you to lunch and lay out the case for this extension. Then perhaps you can write a more nuanced and balanced commentary on this needed project.

  • Andrew

    How can you attach a cost to the eminent domain amendment? How can you attach a cost to restricting government action? Would you also attach a cost to the Fourth Amendment since it would cost the government so much less money if they could just enter everyone’s house as they please, rather than having to recognize personal rights and liberties and go through the warrant process? That’s like saying tax cuts equal government spending.

    I don’t believe it is irresponsible to vote on the issue in April. I believe it is irresponsible to vote to put the issue on the ballot in November because of the REASON they want it there: How would proponents of light rail react if there were a negative referendum — “Virginia Beach city council shall not consider the expansion of light rail into Virginia Beach” — and they wanted it voted on December 24th because they believe that would give them a more favorable outcome? That would be equally irresponsible.

    Many opponents (or those who just don’t know) may just want more information. And rushing a vote before that information is available, for the sole purpose of suiting the agenda of a certain view, is irresponsible.

    I’m not an opponent, but I think this move (the November election) is highly questionable–not because of time, but because of motive.

    (And, Mike, I’m all for hearing about the routes. And thanks for the info. Like I said, I’m not an opponent. I actually think light rail can work better in VB than it does in ORF. But if this is how you treat those who are undecided, I have to question if it’s worth my time hearing from proponents.)

  • Mike Barrett

    You know Andrew, sometimes it is just better to remove the thorn instead of leaving it to fester.

  • Steve, this isn’t about right vs. left. It’s about the hypocrisy of opponents claiming that everyone needs to wait for a study that they aren’t waiting for themselves.

  • Brian E

    Mike Barret,
    Why do you need to go to lunch to explain it? Let us have it. Write an article for BD explaining it and I’m sure JR will publish it.

  • Brian E

    How do we know light rail is working for Norfolk? Is that an opinion or is there some facts behind it? Why would we expand something that is under even during our peak season?

  • Andrew, don’t you think it’s funny that many of the same opponents who claim to want to wait for a “study” before having a referendum signed Wally Erb’s petition to put a referendum on the ballot two years ago?

  • Brian E

    Brian K,
    Just release the numbers (i.e. riders, expenses, train runs, revenue, etc.). What do those numbers look like?
    It’s been opened since last August. Lets see the numbers!

    They should have a quarterly or monthly report for “The Tide”? Why would we need a study for that except to put a spin on it?

  • Brian E, how would I go about releasing “the numbers?”

    Just checked my pockets. Hmmmm. Not there. How about my jacket? Nope.

    Why don’t you release the numbers?

  • Brian E

    Light-rail has been a dismal failure everywhere. It seems that light rail needs to prove itself, not citizens disproving it. I keep hearing about studies, opposition, opinions and lunches. But we avoid the hard numbers since “The Tide” opened last August.

    Of course, those numbers are not available. That’s what’s sad!

    BTW, you may wish to check with your wife. Those things happen after a while of being married. 🙂

  • Brian Kirwin

    Brian E, you say you oppose light rail and call reports “propaganda” – why should anyone engage your questions when you’ve already proclaimed that you will disregard the answers?

  • Mike Barrett

    Saying that light rail has been a dismal failure is like saying highways, bridges, and tunnels have been a dismal failure. What the heck do you mean in either case?

    Six months ago, we hosted the Executive VP of Denver Metro, their regional economic development program, who touted the benefits of light rail in attracting new companies, in providing added mobility in congested corridors, and in stimulating over $6,000,000,000 in transit oriented development near the routes.

    Now, a similar statement can be made about Metro in Northern Virginia, or about DART in Dallas, or about light rail services in over 20 communities around the nation. But if your measure is that fares pay for capital and operating costs and throw off a profit, then, no, light rail will not be deemed to be successful.

    But neither will roads, bridges, nor tunnels.

  • Light Rail’s not a dismal failure in Maryland.

  • Brian E

    Let’s start with defining Propaganda – “a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position.”

    With so many corporations, city council members and universities associated with the Hampton Roads Partnership and they calling for Support for Passenger Rail Service…it can only be propaganda.

    I didn’t say I would disregard answers because they are propaganda just take into consideration. Just as we are to believe that organizations aren’t taken a self-interest in providing a biased report.

    That’s all I’m saying but if you don’t wish to support light rail with some actual numbers rather than opinion than what’s up with the Hampton Roads Partnership declaring its support.

  • Brian E

    Brian S,
    If Maryland’s light rail is doing so well why does government have to make it priority. If it was so successful, it would not need government’s priority.

    My eyes keep going to this statement in this report,

    “Light rail is almost a dream, and to tell citizens today they might pay up to 18 cents a gallon for something that may happen 15 years down the road. I’d like to show where this money goes since citizens are concerned the money is going to the larger metropolises.”

    If light rail was so successful you wouldn’t need so much government involvement. Again, give me something substantial to bite on for light-rail being economically viable.

  • Brian E

    Mike B,
    We can always spin positions and circumstances to where it benefits the ones in the room, that’s why we need reports. So, it spins it just right.

    That’s also why we’re $16 trillion in debt with no chance of return. Because we are funding projects that just can’t work.

    Luckily our backup plan is hugging Coke machines in Taiwan or happiness scales in Europe. Because our current projectory is unsustainable. That is under our current system.

  • Mike Barrett

    Actually, how you made the leap from the extension of light rail into Virginia Beach to the total amount of the national debt is a real case of spin. But let me respond.

    President Bush did three things to cause the Great recession; he fought two wars without paying for them, he created a new benefit in Medicare without paying for it either. Then, he let Wall Street greed and avarice cause banks to fail. As a result, he left debt and financial ruin to his successor.

    We are in recovery and on our way out of financial crisis. Thanks be to the President for doing it the right way. Now, if Congress will pull on the oars as well, we can pick up steam.

    That said, back to light rail, it is an alternative means of mobility in congested corridors like I-264 in Norfolk/Virginia Beach. Now that Speaker of the House Bill Howell had bankrupted the transportation trust fund and cut all aid to local governments for road construction, we need to build only the most cost efficient projects.

    Frankly, in this corridor, light rail meets that test. The repair and expansion of I-264 is a $3,000,000,000 project that would only be possible by a PPV with a toll of some $3/one way. Frankly, that won’t happen; light rail is the best alternative in this corridor.

  • Brian E

    Because most of these projects are paid for by stimulus money, grant money or raised taxes. That’s the leap…who do you think is paying for all this?

    Congestion and population control, I can understand along with attempting to solve the congestion with light rail.

    But don’t piss down my leg and tell me its raining…

  • Brian E

    I have no problem with light rail but lets have an honest dialogue. If light rail works, then why is there so much public funding needed, what does government need a priority? Because light rail is a burden on the taxpayers.

    There was a $109 billion Transportation bill that’s sitting in Congress…that’s to pay for our trains.

  • Brian E – I have yet to find a mode of transportation that doesn’t require significant government investment. Can you name any?

  • Steve Vaughan

    Hmmmm, government may have to build the roads Brian, but they don’t have to subsidize anybody’s car.

  • Brian E., there will not be an honest dialogue about light rail or other things like the national debt/deficit. Both sides have reason to be evasive, to decieve, and take opportunistic shots when possible.

    The truth is, a larger turn out is expected. The additional turn out is expected to favor light rail expansion. To previous supporters of past referendum that oppose this new one, this is a stunt and they oppose it as dishonest.

    It is a stunt with dishonest wording, but so is the hypocrisey that Kirwin points out about waiting for a study they previously didn’t want to wait for. Why? Proponents of light rail saw a great danger in failure of the last referendum. Therefore they wanted to wait and opponents wanted the devastating set back that would be wrought on the the light rail project. They got it. The Beach voters clearly didn’t want it. So, outcome from the view of both sides took precedent over what was the right thing to do. Nobody cared about the study, just the outcome.

    Now, proponents of the light rail see an opportunity for reversal despite plenty of evidence that we really can’t afford this and that people’s property will be adversely affected and they don’t realize it.

    With the wording of the referendum and the expected turn out, proponents see this as a possible chance to win.

    A win for light rail could lead to further hypocrisey, however. The victory would probably lead to a binding of the non-binding referendum. Proponents would insist they are acting on behalf of the people by moving full speed ahead.

    Again, they’re focusing on the outcome and using any means necessary. Both sides.

    It is a little dishonest to call this impulsive. It has been in the papers – failures in Norfolk, the failed past referendum, the state of local budgets, and this still being April. Realistically however, opponents are aware that it will take strong efforts to educate the public, especially those that will be displaced. Of course that is the voting demographic that opponents should be targeting first in their upcoming campaign.

    Lastly, I am so totally disgusted with the argument that any future fiscal failure can be justified by the plethora of fiscal failures brought about by Big Government. Why don’t we just revert back to “Well, he did it first” and “but, all my friends were jumping in the lake too!”. Kinda like our debt and deficit being out of control and yet, all the failures being justified by other failures.

    When we get honest representation, Brian E., you might get an honest dialogue. I’m not holding my breath.

  • We didn’t just bail out Detroit?

  • @Brian K, yes I do find it amusing that opponents signed the petition.

    And I’m not against government getting involved in the transportation industry. A free and safe flow of industry, commerce, and residents is essential to the exercise AND protection of life, liberty, and property. I think the Interstate Highway System is one of the best investments the federal government ever made for interstate commerce.

    Lastly, I do stand by my description as this being “impulsive.” Playing on quadrennial voters, who often vote based on how they feel about an issue, in order to *impel* a desired outcome fits this description nicely. I figured I would’ve gotten more flack for implying the vote as impetuous…

  • Darrell

    Talk, talk, talk. The numbers are available if you really want them. Got to HRT’s website. Click Public Records. There’s more numbers there than you have time to read.

  • I would call that calculated, Andrew. The quadrennial voter that doesn’t normally follow the news might be rightly labled as impulsive. Taking advantage of that in this case isn’t representation, it is predatory.

    Getting past all that, you still have to make a case for a fully utilizable rail. This includes arguments made by Little David about them not even being willing to do it right.

    You also have population requirements. Granted, with the upcoming tolling of Norfolk and Portsmouth, a case can be made that Norfolk is looking at a situation that will beef up population density. You will have to establish that you can attract quality density with desirable highrise living space that is pedestrian friendly to even think about successful rail. We’re not exactly seeing robust population growth at the moment. Who knows what will happen if carriers start leaving the area and the military gets significantly down sized.

    What if “If you build they will come” turns into ” They built it but, nobody bought”? What would we do with the empty train? Blame it on Detroit?

  • ToR


    “Hmmmm, government may have to build the roads Brian, but they don’t have to subsidize anybody’s car.”

    Auto industry bailout ring a bell? Not to mention cash for clunkers, etc.

  • Brian E

    Were those bailouts for the betterment of the American auto driver or a power grab for unions to get their own car company and get those hillbillies out of those 40 year old cars. You speak of the bailouts as a good thing.

    Funny how Obama destroying family owned auto dealership businesses were left out of your government subsidy plan? These people are now contributing to the food stamp numbers. Now being mocked by Republicans for being on Food Stamps…

    It only seems freedom is losing…badly.

  • Old-geezer

    Since I do not have property in Va Beach or Norfolk, not my problem. So would consider myself to be neutral in this.

    If I did live in Va Beach, would vote against it though. Not because I am against light rail. Because I think that the politicos will screw it up and make it a giant boondoggle.

    Would favor a monorail like they have at Disney World.

    Notice how it travels above roads and traffic.

  • ToR


    The bailouts started in 2008 under Bush…but honesty or facts have never been much for the bloggers on commenter on this site.

    President Bush also initiated the tax break for SUV purchases.

    If previous owners of car dealerships are on food stamps I’d be shocked. And you could simply show some humanity and stop mocking them. Wouldn’t that be the grown up and simple thing to do?

    And cash-for-clunkers got people to trade in cars which helped car dealerships…

    It seems honesty, truth, and facts are lost on you.

  • Brian E

    Quit diverted the subject with personal attacks, the government targeted dealerships:

    They closed perfectly good dealerships that were profitable but that’s what you get when you have government making the decisions.

    Cash for clunkers was a waste of money for auto owners and taxpayers, unneeded stimulus on a government controlled industry.

    I have provided ample references. Where’s yours?

  • Funny how some people just make blanket statements and name call every conservative on here.

    There were plenty of people opposed to bailing out the car companies and cash for clunkers. Granted many were playing “Follow the leader” like good little sheep under Bush and suddenly saw the light under Obama. I get that totally.

    However, many awesome Republicans were alongside us(Libertarians) in criticizing Bush’s Big Government fiscal ways.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.