Virginia Beach Light Rail agreement reached

Light rail may finally be coming to Virginia Beach at last! But not to the Oceanfront.
Light rail may finally be coming to Virginia Beach at last! But not to the Oceanfront.

In a turn of events that spanned the course of the last month, it appears that the city of Virginia Beach has signed onto what is merely a consolation prize, not necessarily ending the battle to get the Oceanfront connected to light rail.

A brief overview of the Virginia Beach Transit Extension Study (VBTES).

Back in 2011 (possibly earlier though), Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) launched a feasibility study on extending The Tide light rail (LRT) line from its current eastern terminus at Newtown Rd, located near the Norfolk/Virginia Beach city limits, towards the Virginia Beach Oceanfront. The study has been a grueling process for some, especially for those who have been opposed to bringing LRT into Virginia Beach from the very start, and don’t wish to ever see the rail lines built within the resort city due to its price tag. Supporters say that the rail line is needed to help combat increasing congestion along I-264, provide residents and visitors alike, an alternative way to get around the area, and to help boost the city’s economic development.

The HRT study began exploring three alignments for LRT, with a secondary option to implement Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) instead of LRT should the primary plan for LRT fall through. These three alignments would have utilized at least a portion of an abandoned Norfolk Southern freight rail line that once ran from Norfolk to Virginia Beach. One alignment would have had trains running from Newtown Rd to Rosemont Rd, while the other two would have connected light rail all the way to the Oceanfront at Atlantic Ave and 19th St, serving the Virginia Beach Convention Center. Three similar alignments were brought forth for the BRT alternative.

The key difference between the second and third LRT alignments was that the second alignment would have entirely used the old Norfolk Southern corridor, while the third would have made a jog towards the Hilltop area via Laskin Rd. The third alignment, despite its length at 13.5 miles, brought forth the highest daily ridership projections at roughly 8,850. That same alignment however, would have come at the highest price tag of all three proposals, at $1.3 billion dollars. Fiscal opponents quickly chastised HRT and Virginia Beach leaders for such a ballooned cost, especially after what they have seen with the cost overruns that plagued the initial Norfolk line. Despite the opposition, a non-binding referendum supporting light rail in Virginia Beach passed in November, 2012, and HRT continued its study to extend light rail to the Oceanfront.

View a map that I’ve made showing the three original alignments for the Virginia Beach light rail plan. This map also shows the the Town Center alignment, which I’ll discuss in a moment. Please note that not all proposed stops are shown on my map. The full list of stations can be viewed in the latest presentation (from January) of the VBTES from HRT (page 4). The document also includes figures for all three alignments that I’ve discussed.

Monkeys toss wrenches into LRT plan.

In 2013, a few wrenches began to be tossed at Virginia Beach city leaders. Private groups, including one led by former HRT President Phillip Shucet, vowed to get LRT constructed at a much lower cost and within a faster time frame than the what was outlined in the HRT study. These proposals were built upon the notion that the federal funding process, which is typically very time consuming, would be able to be bypassed by using private funds to build the rail extension. During the course of 2013, the groups presented their proposals to city leaders, hoping that they would consider their plans further. After some initial uncertainty, city leaders ultimately agreed to consider these proposals.

Towards the end of 2013, city leaders began hearing from American Maglev Technology to possibly allow for a maglev rail connection to be built between Newtown Rd and the Oceanfront, instead of LRT. Many leaders seemed to be impressed by this proposal, despite maglev technology not yet being tested for commercial operations here in the United States. On top of that, such a line would require an unnecessary transfer from LRT to Maglev at Newtown Rd, which could ultimately hurt rail ridership. A consortium that includes the same company is currently trying to woo city leaders in Orlando, FL to build a maglev line there too. I do hope that Orlando learns about the failed maglev experiment at Old Dominion University and give maglev a second thought.

By February, 2014, a third wrench was thrown onto the table; a smaller LRT proposal that would truncate the extension at Town Center, resulting in a shorter time frame for construction at a lower cost. This plan seemed to be presented at the tune of fiscal conservatives who were still opposed to LRT entering Virginia Beach, but was largely based on that riders could easily transfer to another mode at Town Center, such as maglev or BRT, to travel to the Oceanfront. The addition of the Town Center alignment caused additional time and funds to be added onto HRT’s study, which was basically completed with the three original alignments at that point.

To make matters even more complicated for the Oceanfront plan, state leaders approached Virginia Beach city leaders in April, and offered to pay for half (or up to $155 million) the costs of building the light rail extension into Virginia Beach, given that the city pay for the rest (roughly $130 million). This offer was presented to city leaders due to the scarcity of federal funds being available for at least the foreseeable future. Despite the offer sounding sweet on the surface, there are a few strings attached. In addition of having to pay the remaining funds (roughly $130 million), city leaders would have to close the door on all discussions regarding building a maglev line. The state has voiced its concerns that because the technology is unproven, they can’t back any project to build it. Second, the city would also have to dismiss the private-public partnership proposals that were presented back in 2013. And third, if you haven’t figured it out by now, this offer is only applicable if city leaders carry forth the Town Center alignment, which would basically abandon the three other alignments previously brought forth by HRT.

The outcome, and what’s to come next.

By May 8, the two parties came together on an agreement to move ahead with getting light rail extended to Virginia Beach (although an final deal has yet to be inked). However, more questions remain; such as how will the state’s side of the funding agreement be carried out. Virginia’s Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne indicated that the state grant would be pulled from transit funds from the Department of Rail and Public Transportation. However, Commonwealth Transportation Board would still have to approve the usage of those funds for the light rail project. The board has the final say on whether the agreement ultimately moves forward. Beyond that point, things still remain uncertain due to the federal debacle over the National Highway Trust Fund (blog post) and whether it runs dry or not. Numerous transportation and transit projects in the state of Virginia face the possibility of postponement or cancellation if the state can’t get federal dollars.

Although hope is not lost on bringing light rail to the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, the process will undoubtedly be a lot more challenging. This is mainly due to the uncertain economic and political climate that the area, and much of the nation for that matter, still faces when it comes to passenger rail. Another question that remains for Virginia Beach, is what happens next with HRT’s study? I would take it that HRT will complete the Town Center alignment portion and present its findings at a later date, ultimately giving everyone a clearer picture of just how much the project will cost.

Beyond this however, the cost and time frame of getting light rail to the Oceanfront will have to be significantly revised, and branched off as a second phase extension plan. I would think that on the upside, HRT would be able to use some info that it has gathered from its original study to see if either of the two alignments (NSRR or Hilltop) would still be viable  to get light rail to the Oceanfront, or if BRT would be a better, shorter-term option, while further funding avenues are explored for LRT. One downside however, is if politics get in the way of things, as they always do, the Oceanfront may not be seeing light rail until past 2025.

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