One former city mayor warns that dispelling myths is necessary, as is communicating honestly and openly about the issues and potential pitfalls of the project.
(TNS) -- Transit experts from Denver, Minneapolis, Phoenix and Charlotte, N.C., brought their stories of “transformational transit” to Hampton Roads on Monday as Virginia Beach prepares to weigh in on light rail at the polls this fall.
Hampton Roads Transit hosted the daylong event for about 250 people at the Westin Town Center.
The affair was part rallying for the light-rail vote in November and part gaining traction for a long-term goal of getting regional funding for the transit agency, which receives money piecemeal from each city. The agency is hosting a series of educational, outreach and advocacy events.
This event focused on how large transit projects have transformed cities. The conversation often gravitated toward “the watershed moment” Virginia Beach is facing with its light-rail referendum.
One breakout group talked about countering the “myths and misinformation” surrounding the Virginia Beach extension.
Scott Smith, former Mesa, Ariz., mayor and interim manager of Phoenix’s transit system, led the discussion.
Smith, a Republican, was a proponent of bringing light rail through the historic downtown of Mesa, a community made up largely of conservatives, retirees and seniors.
He said Virginia Beach faces similar challenges his city had.
“You’re not in a unique situation.”
Smith said Mesa can serve as a good example to Virginia Beach, which carries similar political demographics. Virginia Beach is the third-most conservative city in the U.S., and Mesa is first, Smith said, citing a joint UCLA and Massachusetts Institute of Technology study.
But in 2004, a half-cent sales tax vote to fund road, light rail and other transit issues passed with 58 percent across Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and Mesa.
“(My constituents) don’t like blank checks, pie-in-the-sky ideas, over-promising,” Smith said. “They like honest discussions, debates that don’t insult their intelligence.
“Talk honestly and openly about the issues with them and some of those myths go away.”
Sometimes it takes personalizing the message to cater to the audience, said Natalie English, a vice president with the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce.
For instance, she said, tell seniors about how public transit can help them age in place. Meanwhile, tell businesses how it can help attract a younger workforce who may want a more urban, multi-modal city.
“It’s telling the truth that matters most to your audience,” English said.
During a session, Smith broke down some of the things he faced when light rail came to his town.
A paraphrased summary of the discussion:
“Light rail costs too much and no one will ride it.” Smith said it’s expensive, but he said cost needs to be looked at in a long-term way. It’s a better investment when you look at cost per passenger, per mile over the 50-year life of a system.
Some people only want to look at light rail’s impact on the immediate future, he said, but those same people wouldn’t criticize a bridge or other 30-to-50-year infrastructure investments in the same way.
“It’s not cheap to build a bridge that a small percentage of people use on a daily basis, but we do it because it’s a generational investment,” Smith said. “It changes investment patterns. It sets the stage for our future and connects our communities.”
“If the market wanted light rail, the private sector would do it.”
All transportation costs money and no modes pay for themselves. Researchers say up to 51 percent of roads are subsidized. The private sector rarely looks at making roads either, Smith said: “If anyone calculates the gas tax, you won’t come close to covering the cost of driving on roads.”
Transit tends to get scrutinized more because the public sees farebox returns that hover at 20-25 percent cost recovery, one roundtable member said.
“Light rail is obsolete technology.” It’s the safest and most-reliable option we have, according to members of the roundtable; new tech is out there, but not advanced enough yet.
“Light rail will bring criminals and ‘unsavory’ people to the community.”
Smith said Phoenix’s system has made safety and security a top priority and the city hasn’t seen crime increase along the route. Crime remains where it historically was, Smith said.“Our mantra is that every person has the right to feel safe and secure on light rail,” he said.
And yes, light rail can bring the entire spectrum of society from upper class to the unemployed and homeless, he said: “If you feel uncomfortable in that element, you’re probably not going to be for public transit.”
Others in the group pointed out that those who want to cause trouble can already get somewhere by car.
“If I wanted to live in New York, I’d move there.”
Light rail will bring density, but only to areas within a quarter to one-half mile of the stations, preserving suburban and rural lifestyles elsewhere, roundtable members said.
“Nothing is going to replace the car, but light rail adds a choice. ” Smith said.
He ended the event by asking, “Is the status quo adequate enough to go into the future?”
Virginia Beach City Council candidate Robert Dean attended the event but said it didn’t sway his opinion against light rail. During the roundtable, he questioned HRT for trying to change the lifestyle in Virginia Beach through social engineering.
©2016 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.