To recover costs, America’s streetcar companies built at the end of the line race tracks, beer gardens, bath houses, resort hotels, casinos and amusement parks. Norfolk had its amusement park in Ocean View. It was the trolley companies who laid out the lots, built the streets, installed utilities and developed retail shopping to cover the costs of trolley operations by selling properties in suburbia.
This November’s referendum on the Blue Line is more than just a vote on a 3.5 mile trolley revival to Town Center. The vote is a bet by the city’s bureaucrats and developers that light rail will unleash a boom of mixed use urban properties along the line creating new wealth for some and a constant flow of tax revenue.
Once the Blue Line is operational it will encourage light rail expansion. Most voters don’t realize that if the total light rail system is ever built it will include a Gold Line, running from Town Center through Hill Top to the old Dome.
A Red Line is planned to run down Independence to Little Creek and Norfolk International Airport; a Green Line will follow South Independence to the Municipal Center; and a transfer station on the Green Line will connect to the Purple Line going to Centerville. The major transfer point for light rail will be Union Station, in the heart of Town Center.
We know that the 3.5 mile Blue Line, plus buses and a walking path, will cost $371 million. The combined cost of only the Blue and Gold Lines, according to one public estimate, would be more than a billion dollars.
The Blue Line does not qualify for federal funding, but the Commonwealth has promised to contribute $155 million. Blue Line fares will not cover the annual operating costs that are estimated to be $12 million dollars yearly.
The city plans to cover a 3.5 mile Blue Line short fall in operating costs by an increase in property tax, as well as a $5 increase in the city car tax and by reallocating money from existing funds. As more lines are built and become operational, the tax burden on property owners will most likely increase.
At this stage in planning we don’t know the construction and operating cost of light rail beyond Blue and Gold
While the Blue and Gold Lines will utilize a pre-existing right-of-way, the city would need to acquire rights-of-way for the Green, Red and Purple Lines, possibly displacing homes and businesses. Elevated lines may be less disruptive, but in Honolulu an elevated line is costing $250 million a mile.
Like the old trolley systems, Virginia Beach’s light rail hopes to funnel riders to the central business district ideally creating foot traffic, retail sales, as well as dining and entertainment venue patrons.
Hampton Roads Transit, however, is forecasting that by 2034 the extension to Town Center would generate a weekday average of 2,250 trips at Virginia Beach stations. It is doubtful that retailers and food vendors will be able to sustain a business on the spending of an estimated 1,125 individual daily riders.
The reality is that in order to entice patrons to make Town Center a business, retail and entertainment success more subsidies will be needed for parking garages –“free parking garages.”
Light rail does not create new economic activity. At best it changes where it will take place from existing business locations to Town Center.
Unfortunately, all the planning and private and public investment will not address one of Virginia Beach’s fundamental economic problems – the lack of cheap developable land to drive residential and commercial growth.
As the “tide” rolls in, the city’s leaders and bureaucrats have chosen to rearrange the chairs on the beach sand. How do we get the bet off of the Blue Line?
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