Virginia Beach, Va. - The Virginia Beach City Council will move forward with efforts to extend light rail from Newtown Road to Town Center.
Council members voted on a Memorandum of Understanding and an authorization to purchase three light rail cars Tuesday.
The Memorandum of Understanding is a non-binding agreement that says the city is committed to the project.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board told the city they needed to commit to both prior to April 30 or else state funding could be withdrawn.
The state has set aside $155 million for the project, which is estimated to cost around $310 million.
The project is not a done deal, though. According to a city spokesperson, this is just the next step in the process.
Here's what happens next: Work will continue on design plans. They should be 30 percent complete by this fall, which will give officials a better idea how much an extension could cost. The current estimate of $310 million is based off design plans that were just 5 percent complete. After that, companies can start bidding on the project and around April, city council will vote on construction.
Meanwhile, people opposed to light rail are trying to get a referendum on the November ballot to put the issue in front of Virginia Beach voters.
The proposed question asks "Should City Council use local funds to bring light rail to Virginia Beach?"
A petition to get the referendum on the ballot was submitted to the Circuit Court last month. City Treasurer John Atkinson, who is leading the grass-roots group 'No Light Rail in Virginia Beach' says they had more than 32,000 signatures on the petition.
The city registrar's office is now in the process of verifying signatures.
The agreement city council voted on Tuesday would allow the city to cancel the contract to purchase light rail cars without monetary penalty if they make that decision before Dec. 2.
Virginia Beach isn't the only city where an extension is being considered.
While it's still in much earlier stages, HRT continues to look at the possibility of an extension to Naval Station Norfolk.
A corridor study was completed about a year ago which came up with two potential route options for high-capacity transit.
"One focused mainly on the east side of the city and one on the west side of the city. Each had a very different purpose," said Ray Amoruso, HRT's Chief Planning and Development Officer.
HRT officials say they're about to start the next phase - two studies which will look more closely into those routes.
"We anticipate putting both studies out between now and June for hiring consultant help," said Amoruso. The studies would start around July. One is expected to take two and a half to three years and the other twelve to eighteen months.
HRT will be briefing Norfolk City Council next Tuesday.
Light rail originally opened in Norfolk in 2011.
Here's a look at the total number of riders each year since then:
- FY 2012 - 1,530,543
- FY 2013 - 1,781,345
- FY 2014 - 1,531,606
- FY 2015- 1,394,640
- So far in FY 2016 - 994,315
HRT spokesperson Tom Holden says there are a number of factors that can drive people to or away from public transit. Holden says some of the factors that have caused a decline in ridership include dramatic declines in the cost of gasoline and there was a fare increase last year.
On the Peninsula, HRT is also looking at ways to improve transportation. They just started a corridor study similar to the one they did last year in Norfolk. It will look at different options in Hampton in Newport News, with the most likely mode of transportation considered bus rapid transit.