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.