Transit Options in Virginia Beach

January 18, 2014

This week, Virginia Beach learned it’s likely to cost $1.3 billion to extend light rail through the Hilltop commercial district to the Oceanfront in 2018. By comparison, bus rapid transit would cost $885 million.

But those numbers depend on who’s chosen to build the system and what technology is used. The effect on Virginia Beach taxpayers depends on whether federal and state money are part of the financing, how many people use the system and how much development occurs around the stops.

So far, the city knows this: One consortium says it can extend light rail 5.2 miles to Rosemont Road for $235 million. It’s an attractive and relatively inexpensive proposal, but it doesn’t account for the costs of right-of-way acquisition or an expanded feeder bus system. Another company wants to build the system to the Oceanfront but won’t divulge how much it would cost.

A third company says that for $344 million it will construct a solar-powered system using a new, cheaper, greener technology that will take people to the Oceanfront. But that company has two strikes against it: a failed effort to build a magnetic-levitation monorail at Old Dominion University a decade ago and no completed transit systems in the country.

If no federal money is available – and that’s likely to be the case because the Federal Transit Administration hasn’t funded any new projects this fiscal year – how will Virginia Beach pay for it? What, if anything, can the city afford?

So many moving parts must be analyzed and weighed against the city’s other needs.

In its annual retreat this month, the Virginia Beach City Council acknowledged that its direction in the coming year determines what kind of city it will be in 20 years. Building a transit system is critical to growing Virginia Beach strategically, providing opportunities to live in urban, pedestrian-friendly districts as well as in suburban neighborhoods and among farmland.

If the city builds transit in phases, putting off the Oceanfront extension for a decade, does that impede growth in tourism, one of the economic drivers of the region? If Virginia Beach delays any construction, how would that affect efforts to recruit jobs and young people?

Some city leaders are intrigued by the claims of American Mag-lev Technology that it can build a system faster and for less than 30 percent of the cost of the conventional train Norfolk built, doing less damage to the environment in the bargain. The company points to its half-mile test track in Powder Springs, Ga., as proof. Call us skeptical.

City staff plan to present recommendations next month on how the council should proceed. The bottom line: Public transit is critical to the future of Virginia Beach, but the council has much more work to do before it decides what form it should take.