Light rail fight heats up ahead of November vote

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — The fight over extending The Tide from Norfolk to Town Center in Virginia Beach is heating up as Election Day inches closer.

Protesters rallied Thursday night outside the Slover Library downtown, where supporters met inside to talk about ways for winning over people who haven’t made up their mind.

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Voters in the resort city will see a question of the Nov. 8 ballot asking whether or not they agree with spending city funds for The Tide extension.

“This is a dream, it’s not realistic,” says John Atkinson, Virginia Beach city treasurer and the leader of the opposition.

Atkinson says the price tag, estimated between $250 and 275 million, is wasteful spending.

“The study [Hampton Roads Transit] printed said that only 1,100 people would ride it daily in 2034,” he said. “1,100 people a day is nothing in the way of congestion, the elimination of pollution or transporting people.”

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Will Christopher, President of the Hampton Roads Public Transportation Alliance, says supporters like himself have a vision for connecting Hampton Roads.

“How we define connectivity today is much different,” says Christopher. “It’s more walkable, bikeable, hop on the light rail, jump in an Uber.”

Christopher says he believes the track could spawn new business, housing and mixed-use development.

“The benefit of light rail is that it is long term. It’s a signal to private investors, private enterprise, businesses that we’re making investment in this community,” says Christopher.

The City of Virginia Beach has spent $16.3 million to date on the light rail extension. Of that, $15 million helped fund a portion of the $40 million Norfolk Southern right-of-way purchase.

The question now: Should the city move forward?

“If we are really serious, we need to be talking about a connected, unified region,” says Christopher.

“If no one’s going to ride it and it’s that expensive, don’t do it,” says Atkinson.

The city has $155 million in state funding sitting on the table for the project. They must make a decision by Dec. 31 or the money will be given to projects in different localities.

Hampton Roads Transit will present their 30 percent engineering study on Monday, Oct. 3. It’s expected that they’ll have more detailed plans about construction and total cost.