Light rail in Va. Beach: Look to Charlotte's success?

13News Now Eric Kane has the story

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WVEC) -- Supporters of bringing the Tide from Norfolk to Town Center say Hampton Roads could see a surge in development, like what happened in Charlotte, N.C.

Charlotte is a fast growing city and its light rail system opened in 2007. Along its nine-mile corridor, the city's transit system says there has been $1.5 billion in economic development. That includes new apartment towers, restaurants, and shops.

Jeff Michaels, the director of the Urban Institute at UNC Charlotte, studies the rapid growth of the "Queen City" and the transportation infrastructure racing to keep up.

It's a lot of the younger generation, creative class moving here. They're choosing to live close in, which is a complete shift from 20 to 30 years ago when most of the young talent was living out in the suburban apartment complexes," said Michaels.

Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms often references the boom in economic development along Charlotte's transit system corridor when trying to convince voters to approve a referendum that would extend the Tide to Virginia Beach's Town Center. However, light rail opponents think it is not a realistic comparison.

"To compare Charlotte to Virginia Beach is like night and day," said City Treasurer John Atkinson, who is leading the charge against light rail in Virginia Beach. "Charlotte is a major crossroads, transportation cross roads. It's also a vibrant financial center on the east coast. Virginia Beach, on the other hand, is a cul-de-sac."

Since the Tide opened in 2011, Hampton Roads Transit says the City of Norfolk has seen $500 million in commercial development, which includes a surge in apartment spaces and the relocation of a Fortune 500 company.

Employers like ADP say one reason the company brought 1,800 jobs to Norfolk is due to the city's commitment to a more walkable lifestyle.

Joash Schulman with VB Connex says a new report from the City of Virginia Beach proves the economic benefits of light rail. The study projects development along a Town Center expansion would generate $165 million in tax revenue over 20 years create 10,500 additional jobs.

"You will see entirely new opportunities, new businesses, more jobs and broadening the tax base that will take pressure off our citizens and take pressure off our rural and outlying areas," Schulman explained.

Video: Will light rail be an economic benefit?

Charlotte City Councilman Greg Phipps says the city is continuing to see tremendous growth. "There's about 44 people a day moving to Charlotte," he said.

That expansion can be seen throughout Councilman Phipps' northern district, where construction crews are racing to complete a new blue line extension to the city's light rail system.

"It's on schedule and within budget and that's what we're pushing for right now. They're working night and day to meet that deadline," Phipps explained.

Once construction on the nine-mile extension is completed, it will connect downtown Charlotte to the main campus of UNC Charlotte -- home to nearly 30,000 students.

Here at home in Hampton Roads, the biggest concern about light rail appears to be the cost. Hampton Roads Transit estimates extending the Tide to Virginia Beach's Town Center would take $243 million.

Public opinion about the matter has been mixed. According to a poll commissioned by 13News Now, the Virginian-Pilot and Christopher Newport University, support for and against light rail is deadlocked.

Light rail poll results

State leaders, including Governor Terry McAuliffe and Transportation Secretary Aubrey Lane Jr., have put their support behind the project -- even offering to pay for it. However, a local conservative movement promises to bring the plan to a stop.

"In Virginia Beach, we just have no density or possibility of ever needing it," said John Atkinson with 'No Light Rail in Virginia Beach.'

Councilman Phipps says the political battle in Virginia Beach is similar to what Charlotte experienced.

"We've had some transit naysayers throughout the whole process. They didn't think it was a good use of taxpayer money and things like that. So you have varying opinions, but those were overcome really. And then even those critics have to be, and they are, pleasantly surprised about what has happened on the part that is already completed," said Phipps.

Virginia Beach residents will vote on whether to extend light rail to Virginia Beach in a referendum on the November 2016 ballot. City council members have noted they will honor the outcome of the vote.


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