Norfolk’s Light Rail System, The Tide, to Ride to the Norfolk Naval Base
Topics: Light Rail
By Harry Minium
© September 23, 2011
Light rail exceeded all ridership projections when it opened last month, so giddy city officials pleased with its success want to begin the process of extending it to Norfolk Naval Station.
The City Council unanimously asked City Manager Marcus Jones this week to begin planning an extension of The Tide to the base. They also requested that he move ahead with plans to hire a transportation czar to oversee Norfolk’s transportation projects.
Mayor Paul Fraim and Councilman Barclay C. Winn said the city can’t wait on Virginia Beach to determine if and when it might want light rail.
“Whatever Virginia Beach decides to do, they will do it in their own good time, Fraim said. “We can’t do anything to influence their decision. So we ought to move forward with our own planning.”
Virginia Beach has been mulling proposals to extend The Tide to Town Center and the Lynnhaven area, but Hampton Roads Transit, which built and operates Norfolk’s light-rail line, suspended a study on the issue for a year in April.
Virginia Beach City Council has been split on light rail, which has drawn vociferous opposition from taxpayer groups. The council won’t make a decision until 2013 at the earliest.
Norfolk’s $318.5 million, 7.4-mile light-rail line, which runs from downtown to the Virginia Beach border, is drawing about 5,140 riders per day, nearly double the projected daily ridership of 2,920.
During their annual retreat in Smithfield this week, council members discussed three proposed extensions to the Navy base:
• Beginning at the Medical Center/Fort Norfolk Station, Fraim suggested extending The Tide around West Ghent and over the Elizabeth River to 26th Street, then up Hampton Boulevard past Old Dominion University to the base.
• A proposal from Councilman Paul R. Riddick would begin downtown and use the city’s right of way on Granby Street to extend through Wards Corner to the base.
• A long-studied extension from the Newtown Road Station on the Virginia Beach border, parallel to Interstate 64 to the Navy base.
Councilman Tommy Smigiel suggested building light rail in the HOV lanes on the interstate, which would reduce land-acquisition costs. He also recommended the city reach out to residents.
“We need their input,” he said.
HRT officials said even if the process started today, it could be seven years before construction began on another spur of light rail.
Norfolk has two funding options, said Tom Holden, HRT’s public affairs manager. It could seek to split the cost with the state or, as with The Tide, it could seek federal and state funding.
If the city and state partnered, the application process would shrink by years, but the cost to the city would increase. Council members said that option isn’t feasible.
The federal government paid for about half the cost of The Tide, and is also subsidizing daily operations. But the application process is much longer – it took 11 years for The Tide to be approved and built. The proposal would also need an endorsement from the region’s Transportation Planning Organization.
Councilwoman Theresa Whibley said the Navy has to have a seat at the table. “This goes beyond traffic concerns to military readiness and other issues,” she said.
Jones said he hopes to soon hire a transportation director. In addition to light rail, the staffer would also oversee the new Midtown Tunnel and all other transportation projects in the city.
Harry Minium, (757) 446-2371, firstname.lastname@example.org