BY JANE BLOODWORTH ROWE
COURTHOUSE – Biking and hiking trails, improved drainage and driverless busses are priorities for newly-elected City Councilmember Jessica Abbott, who was sworn in this month to represent the Kempsville District.
Abbott said she would like to make it easier for citizens to interact with their city government by increasing the use of social media. She would like to stream meetings live on Facebook so that citizens can post comments in real time.
“I am an advocate for transparency,” Abbot said during an interview.
“I want to make it easier for people to work with the city.”
Abbott defeated City Councilmember Dr. Amelia Ross-Hammond in the Tuesday, Nov. 8, election by a margin of 58.9 percent to 40.5 percent, according to official returns reported by the state elections board.
At 27, Abbott is the youngest person elected to Virginia Beach’s city council.
She also was the only challenger endorsed by No Light Rail Virginia Beach, a political action committee that led the effort to oppose extending the Tide, to win a city council seat in November.
Abbott said she wants to see an 11-mile multi-use trail constructed along the right-of-way acquired for light rail extension. It could be used by bicyclists, walkers and runners. This “rails to trails” project, a major part of Abbott’s campaign platform, would cost $55 million to construct, and Abbott estimates that it would take five to 10 years to complete.
“That’s about the same time that it would take to extend the Tide,” Abbott said.
She acknowledged it probably would be used primarily by recreational users rather than commuters.
There are no concrete plans for a trail, said Wayne Wilcox, a senior planner in the city parks and recreation department. Preliminary studies estimated that it would cost $17.7 million for an asphalt trail and concrete sidewalk to extend the three miles from Newtown Road to Town Center.
“But that planning was based on the assumption that it would be built on the coattails of light rail,” Wilcox said during an interview in November.
If city council decides to reject or indefinitely postpone extending light rail to Town Center, that would require a new study. City leaders have said they plan to follow the will of the voters who rejected using local funds to extend the Tide in a referendum.
“We are not sure what the process will be moving forward,” said Wilcox. “We are talking several years.”
To improve transportation for commuters, Abbott envisions enhanced bus service, including the use of autonomous or driverless busses that run on natural gas or electricity. It is also possible that a bus could run along the multi-use trail, which might also be used for motorized bicycles or other low-impact vehicles, Abbott said.
Some cities, including Washington, D.C., are experimenting with driverless busses, which are controlled remotely. Abbott said that she expects Virginia Beach could begin using them within five to 10 years. She has no cost estimates for the price of the busses or the increased routes.
“We would have to work with Hampton Roads Transit,” said Abbott, who said she was focused on moving people around Virginia Beach. Improved routes for city residents who commute to another city would be an issue for the regional transportation agency, she said.
Funding for increased routes or new equipment would need to come from federal and state grants as well as local funding, according to Tom Holden, a spokesperson for Hampton Roads Transit.
“There is rarely enough funding for new equipment,” Holden said. Money for expanded routes would require a financial commitment from the cities, he said. Driverless busses, he added, are in the experimental stages, primarily in Europe where mass transportation receives more funding than in the U.S.
“I do agree that we need to get vehicles off of the road,” said Abbott.
Abbott, a graduate of Kellam High School, is manager of her family’s business, Matt Abbott State Farm in Kempsville.
Drainage is another priority with Abbott, a certified FEMA flood insurance agent who said flooding in some Virginia Beach neighborhoods from recent storms was a major concern of residents she spoke with while she was campaigning.
Abbott has a two-pronged approach to flooding that includes improved maintenance and wetlands protection.
“We need to protect wetlands and not allow development there,” Abbott said. “We also need to allow for natural areas.”
Some drainage ditches and canals are also not being cleaned regularly, Abbott said, and this is a major obstacle to effective storm water run-off.
She would like to see this maintenance prioritized in the city budget, and she would also like to see more accountability for city staff members.
Increased use of social media could allow citizens to conveniently contact city officials when an area particularly needs cleaning, and it could also be used by city staff to post maintenance schedules, Abbott said.
The use of social media, primarily Facebook, was part of Abbott’s campaign strategy to engage in a conversation with voters.
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