News 3 investigates projected growth of potential Virginia Beach light rail extension

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - The city paid an economist about $13,000 for independent consulting on the economic figures related to extending the light rail to Town Center, according to a city spokesperson.

Dr. Vinod Agarwal was hired because City Manager Dave Hansen determined he was neutral on the issue, News 3 uncovered during a Freedom of Information Act request.

Hundreds of documents and emails show why city leaders felt hiring Agarwal would help with the project's credibility.

"[The hiring] will at least provide an element of credibility sufficient to enter our projections," Hansen wrote in an email on July 29, predicting objections and strong efforts to discredit the findings.

Hansen presented the findings to city council members on October 4, citing increased job growth numbers and economic developments as reasons the city would benefit from light rail.

On Tuesday, voters will decide whether they support the extension. The vote is non-binding, meaning city council members still have the final say but several have said they will follow the results.

Opponents of the project believe its costs outweigh its benefit. The latest figures predict a cost of $243.1 million dollars with the city on the hook for $88 million, including contingencies.

City Treasurer John Atkinson has led the campaign against the rail's extension. "This is Town Center, the largest development in Virginia Beach," he told a reporter at the development's fountain. "Why do they need it now? I don't know."

Atkinson questions the neutrality of an economist paid thousands of dollars to consult. "By hiring [Dr. Agarwal] to look at the economics, I think it was just a desperation move by the city to try to buy credibility," he said.

In response, a city spokesperson maintained this was an independent third party review. Dr. Agarwal said he is not motivated by money and was neither for or against the issue. He said he believes there will be growth along the light rail track if it eventually involves a larger network of stops.

To also help make the case, Hampton Roads Transit cites development where the Tide runs now in Norfolk. President and CEO William Harrell cited stats saying there's been more than half a billion dollars in growth since the Tide started, but they've faced questions over whether that includes all development regardless of the light rail.

"Ride the Tide and you'll see the development right along the line," said Harrell. "I think that's not by happenstance. I think people that are making that argument don't support the system and have never ridden the system."

Happenstance or not, the debate over extending the Tide will go past Tuesday, regardless of what voters say.

Extensions in Norfolk and to the City of Chesapeake are also being discussed.