BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE
COURTHOUSE — City Councilmember Bob Dyer this month introduced a draft resolution that would ask the circuit court to place a light rail referendum on the November 2016 ballot.
Dyer said the draft is only a starting point, but he said he hopes his colleagues on the city council will consider the matter during a work session. Dyer provided the draft language to his colleagues and members of the media on Tuesday, Dec. 1, at City Hall.
He said he hoped they might take it up in January.
The yes or no questions, for now, would be: “Should the City Council adopt an ordinance approving the expansion of The Tide light rail system into the City of Virginia Beach?” The question addresses the proposed extension of The Tide from Newtown Station to Town Center.
During the meeting, members of the council discussed whether the wording of the question might change.
“Are you rock solid on the wording?” asked City Councilmember Rosemary Wilson, at large, who said she was not sure the question posed was the right one to ask.
“This is a draft,” Dyer said. “This is a starting point for a discussion.”
Dyer’s efforts come amid other discussions of costs associated with light rail, which have been criticized during public meetings and spurred another referendum effort led by John Atkinson, the city treasurer who started a political action committee called No Light Rail.
That group is collecting signatures on petitions to place another light rail question on the November 2016 ballot. Its ballot question would ask whether local funds should be used to extend light rail to Town Center.
Proponents of expanding light rail have also stepped up efforts to rally support for the Tide’s extension into the Beach, and members of the council have noted that the city is following the purpose of previous referendum on the matter.
A November 2016 referendum, they have noted, would take place before a better understanding of cost is in hand.
City Councilmember John Uhrin, who represents the Beach District, said the question Dyer posed might be easily answered by decided proponents or opponents. However, Uhrin noted that those “in between” might struggle to choose months before cost information comes in.
“Just as a voter,” Uhrin said, “it would be tough for me to answer that question.
“There is going to be a cost,” Dyer said. “There are going to be subsidies. We know that. … This is a tool for us to make a decision. The ultimate cost will come in later, and that will also be a tool to make a decision.”
City Councilmember John Moss, at large, in October unsuccessfully sought to move local funds set aside for the project toward a projected budget shortfall.
This month, he said eventual cost information was unlikely to change many minds on light rail, and he said other votes in 2016 might be more telling about the public’s light rail mood.
“The election is ultimately the referendum on light rail,” Moss said. “If you don’t want light rail, elect different people to sit here.”
After the discussion, held in a work session, Mayor Will Sessoms made a brief remark about the discussions that have arisen from extending the Tide from Newtown Station to Town Center.
“I think when we look at just one segment, numbers look different than when you look at a whole plan a vision for a system,” Sessoms said.
City Manager Jim Spore raised a similar point during a meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 24, when state Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne made a presentation about the commonwealth’s dedication of funds to support rail extension.
Spore said he hoped discussion might be more comprehensive and “perhaps more thoughtful” than focusing only on the 3.2 miles from Newtown Station to Town Center.
“It’s about a system that will benefit not just the city but the entire region,” Spore said, noting future transportation plans here that involve rail connections to other points.
“I think the future of our city is at stake here,” Spore said.
During remarks to the council, Layne reiterated the point: “The Tide extension is part of a larger connected Hampton Roads.”
“This will be your decision,” Layne added, a bit later. “It’s not the state telling you what to do.”
However, Layne made it clear that the state’s provision of $155 million to the project amid competition for funds was tied to the city’s commitment and could be changed by issues such as delays. He said this was not a threat, but asked pointedly whether the city remained committed.
“We remain committed if you’re committed,” Layne said.