light rail

Cox Discussion Panelists: Light Rail is the Right Choice for VB

September 19, 2016   |  

Transportation is one of the most important challenges facing Hampton Roads, and Virginia Beach residents will soon have a chance to change the future of how people travel in this region.

The Cox Business Executive Discussion series, sponsored by Inside Business, devoted its Sept. 13 panel discussion to the topic of light rail, which will go on the Virginia Beach ballot as a referendum question on Nov. 8. The panel, featuring four community business leaders and moderated by HearSay host Cathy Lewis, explored why light rail is the right choice for Hampton Roads.

The panelists included Gordon Parker, president of Virginia Beach Vision; Chris Bonney, president of marketing research firm Bonney & Company; Louisa Strayhorn, owner of LSA Consulting and former Virginia Beach councilwoman; and Christopher Stone, president of Clark Nexsen. Each panelist explained why they believed extending light rail would benefit the entire community.

Light Rail Attracts Serious Investment

Panelist Chris Bonney offers perspective on light rail’s potential for development.

In Virginia Beach, panelists mentioned city leaders want to shift some of the tax burden away from residents. Extending light rail could be a way, according to Bonney, who pointed to Salt Lake City as a light rail success story. While Hampton Roads’ seven cities may struggle to find common ground, Salt Lake City’s Wasatch Front contains 90 governments trying to work together. Initially, residents were very skeptical of claims light rail could be a good investment. But by having an inclusive vision planning process, the Salt Lake City community agreed to invest in a bigger-than-planned light rail system.

“The bottom line is, if you build it to go where people want to go, they’ll use it,” Bonney said.

Recruiting the Best and the Brightest

In the 1950’s, Clark Nexsen was located in downtown Norfolk, but when the company outgrew its original headquarters, it relocated to a large office building in Kempsville.

“It became obvious employees wanted something better,” Stone said. “It became challenging to attract the best and the brightest who were moving to more urban environments.”

The company’s offices in Washington, D.C. and Charlotte had much more success filling positions, and observing that, Clark Nexsen chose to relocate to Town Center. Since then, they’ve seen their hiring efforts improve and Stone said many employees chose to live within walking distance.

Why not Bus Rapid Transit or Autonomous Cars?

For many cities, bus rapid transit (BRT) is a great option to address their needs, panelists said. But in Hampton Roads, BRT may not have the same ability to attract investment the way light rail could benefit our community. Beyond that, it requires more frequent replacement of vehicles, doesn’t address environmental concerns about emissions and demands infrastructure changes to add dedicated lanes. “It doesn’t offer operational efficiency,” Bonney said.

Autonomous cars could represent radical changes for the future, but it’s still too far in the future to know, Strayhorn said. Truly autonomous vehicles are not estimated to be available until 2032, she said, and that’s a long time to wait when it’s already shown that Hampton Roads traffic is only estimated to increase in the intervening years.

What Happens if Virginia Beach Doesn’t Extend Light Rail?

The city will lose credibility, Stone said. The state has offered $155 million in funding for the light rail extension; if Virginia Beach passes on the offer, the money will likely fund another project elsewhere in the state, leaving the city with little lobbying power the next time it seeks state transportation funding, he said.

Virginia Beach would also have to rethink its entire approach to future growth, Strayhorn said. After a decade of planning with public input, the city established eight Strategic Growth Areas where density could be higher, buildings could grow taller and suburban and rural neighborhoods would be protected. Multimodal transportation is key to the plan’s success, and if the citizens decide to reject the opportunity to extend it, the city will have to “start over” and develop a new vision, Strayhorn said.

But Virginia Beach voters will have a chance to boost its recovery by making the bold decision to connect the community through another form of transportation, showing businesses and citizens that the city is prepared to make investments in its future. Vote yes to bring light rail to Virginia Beach on Nov. 8 when asked, “Should City Council of Virginia Beach spend local funds to extend Light Rail from Norfolk to Town Center in Virginia Beach?

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