Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Second Virginia Beach light rail referendum finds support on City Council

A Tide light rail train at the Newtown Road Station on Friday, Oct. 2, 2015. (Judah Taylor/Southside Daily)
A Tide light rail train at the Newtown Road Station on Friday, Oct. 2, 2015. (Judah Taylor/Southside Daily)

VIRGINIA BEACH — Five city council members submitted a resolution Tuesday to hold a referendum this fall asking if residents would support light rail if it does not mean another tax increase. A vote on the resolution is expected next week.

Council members Bob Dyer, Shannon Kane, John Uhrin, Rosemary Wilson and Jim Wood made the move days after City Treasurer John Atkinson announced his group, No Light Rail Virginia Beach, has more than enough signatures on its petition to force a referendum asking if the city should spend local funds on light rail. 

If the City Council passes its resolution and the Virginia Beach Circuit Court certifies that Atkinson’s has enough signatures, it could mean voters would see two questions Nov. 8.

Mayor Will Sessoms said at Tuesday’s council meeting he thinks voters should see only one.

Dyer and Wilson expressed a willingness after the meeting to work with Atkinson to see if the two parties could agree on one question. That question, if it is not Atkinson’s, would have to be passed by the council because the wording of Atkinson’s proposed referendum cannot be changed. It is already registered with the court and the signatures are attached to its wording.

“We’ll see what happens,” said Dyer, who has pushed the council to approve a referendum since October. “But the council has got to take the initiative.”

Atkinson could not be reached late Tuesday.

The council is expected to vote on its resolution at its next meeting, March 15. It needs six votes to pass. If it does, the council’s referendum would ask voters:

“Should the City Council adopt an ordinance approving construction of an extension of light rail to Virginia Beach Town Center if the cost of construction and operation will not require any additional tax increase?”

Vice Mayor Louis Jones could be the sixth vote needed to pass the resolution. He previously said he would support a referendum, but he did not say in the meeting if he would support the resolution proposed by the other council members.

The sixth vote will not come from light rail opponent Councilman John Moss. He said thousands have signed a petition to put Atkinson’s question to a referendum, and the city should defer to it rather than pick another question.

Atkinson’s referendum would ask:

Should City Council of Virginia Beach spend local funds to extend Light Rail from Norfolk to Town Center in Virginia Beach?

Increasing taxes this year to fund the project does not appear to be in play. The city already has $155 million earmarked for the project, partially due to last year’s real estate tax rate hike of 6 cents. The state has also committed $155 million on the project, which has been estimated to cost $310 million but many believe would cost closer to $200 million.

Dyer said he does not know if higher taxes are needed for the project, but the resolution would spark a conversation about the possibility.

The final cost estimates of the project, which would extend Norfolk’s rail system 3 miles to Town Center, won’t be available until next year after engineering and design work is completed.

Wilson said the proposed question, for her, is about revisiting the 2012 referendum, which passed with 62.7 percent of votes in favor of light rail.

It asked:

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?

Wilson said the question was straightforward except for one subjective word: “reasonable.”

“I think people need another chance to vote on it,” she said. “And this is the best we could figure out how to define reasonable, because we don’t know what the price (of extending light rail into the city) is.”

Wilson said she and Dyer mulled the question for months and that it is intended to gauge public opinion and help the council make a decision. Any referendum will not legally bind the City Council, which is expected to make a final vote on the project next summer.

A Virginia transportation official had previously said the city risked losing its $155 million in state funding if another referendum were held and delayed the project. The state has softened that stance, however, and it now appears the city could hold a referendum and keep the funding in place as long as it signs a memorandum of understanding with the state to show its commitment to the project.
 Have a story idea or news tip? Contact City Hall reporter Judah Taylor at or 757-490-2750.

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