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Millennial Argument For Light Rail Is Off Track

A version of this originally appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on Mar 9, 2016.

Oh, look. A squirrel!

Virtually everyone now knows that extending Norfolk’s underperforming light-rail system to Virginia Beach will not reduce traffic congestion or move many people, so the light-rail-at-any-cost crowd has cleverly changed the subject.

To millennials.

You know, people born between 1981 and 2000, give or take a few years.

Suddenly, the argument in favor of light rail goes something like this: If we want to lure these exciting young people to Hampton Roads – and keep the ones who are here already – we must provide them with empty, air-conditioned light-rail cars, heavily subsidized by the taxpayers, so they can take in a game or two each summer at Harbor Park after eating at one of the national chain restaurants at Town Center.

Otherwise, this will become a region full of geriatric baby boomers and dull Gen Xers. A modern-day Lost Colony.

John Martin, a consultant who was paid $30,000 for his services, recently told a committee of the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization that if Virginia Beach wants millennials, it better get on board with light rail.

Seems these hipsters don’t want to rely on cars and refuse to relocate to an area without good public transportation.

A story last week by The Pilot’s Jordan Pascale paraphrased Martin, noting that the researcher said millennials demand “walkable areas in and around urban centers.”

That means those of us who are paying the bills should cough up more than $100 million a mile to bring these smart young things from Newtown Road to Town Center.

What for? To wait tables at The Cheesecake Factory?

I hesitate to point this out, but millennials sound exactly like we baby boomers did when we were in our 20s. We got out of college, headed to big cities and sneered at our parochial parents driving the family station wagon to the supermarket.

“I love walking to things,” we crowed.

Then we got married, had kids, bought minivans and moved to the suburbs where the schools were good.

Has it ever occurred to these researchers that millennials are just ordinary 20- and 30-somethings who will eventually grow up and buy lawn mowers like the rest of us?

What’s really odd is that these “experts” never point to recent findings by the Pew Research Center that showed 26 percent of American millennials were living with their parents in the first third of 2015. These are the famous “boomerang” kids – those who fled home for a while but eventually returned .

Perhaps these millennials love public transportation because their parents won’t let them use the car.

Memo to the light-rail crowd: It’s never smart to make public policy based on the desires of people living in their parent’s basements.

Look, I have nothing against millennials. I gave birth to two. But I’m not buying this inane line of reasoning. Seems to me the best way to attract smart young people to town would be with good jobs.

It’s worth remembering that when Town Center was proposed, the developers promised that the shiny high-rises and upscale restaurants would bring Fortune 500 companies to the Beach.

Didn’t happen.

Now, consultants like Martin say Fortune 500 employers are irrelevant.

According to The Pilot, Martin’s mantra is that, “Luring a Fortune 500 company for growth is an outdated concept. ... These days, cities need to create a great place. Then people will come, employers will follow.”

Rainbows and unicorns, folks.

Leading the fight against light rail is Virginia Beach City Treasurer John Atkinson, who orchestrated a petition drive to put a question about the extension on November’s ballot.

Atkinson denounces the 2012 light-rail referendum, which passed with 62 percent of the vote, as “the big lie.”

“Pro-light-rail people actively engineered the big lie,” Atkinson said Tuesday of the roughly $500,000 raised by developers and businesses four years ago. The loot was spent on a massive advertising campaign that assured voters a “yes” vote was simply to study light rail, not build it.

Separate from Atkinson’s effort, Councilman Bobby Dyer is pushing his colleagues to agree to a referendum question on light rail. Atkinson told me his initiative is not dependent on City Council action. Dyer says he thinks the two sides can come together and decide on one ballot question.

About 150 volunteers collected signatures for Atkinson’s referendum outside primary polls last week. Atkinson reckons that when the count is finished, he’ll have about 26,000 signatures, well above the roughly 16,500 needed to put a new referendum on November’s ballot.

Unlike 2012, this year’s ballot question will be clear and straightforward, he said:

“Should City Council of Virginia Beach spend local funds to extend Light Rail from Norfolk to Town Center in Virginia Beach?”

Atkinson predicted that the pro-light-rail forces will raise even more money to defeat his referendum than they did in 2012 to pass theirs.

They’re going to need it, if the millennial argument is all they have.

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