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Riding the tide of change

New light-rail transit system to shape city’s development

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Print this page by Elizabeth Cooper

With a 300-year history that includes two devastating fires and a yellow fever epidemic that wiped out a third of its population, Norfolk knows a thing or two about resilience and revival. Now, with the launch of its light-rail system, Virginia’s second-largest city continues to renew itself, while cementing its status as Hampton Roads’ financial and cultural hub.

In August, Norfolk rolled out The Tide, Virginia’s first light-rail system, to fanfare and more than 75,000 riders during a three-day period. Expected to ease traffic congestion and provide an economic boost to the region, the 7.4 mile rail transit system is only the 35th in the nation.

The Tide is just one point of pride for Norfolk these days. Despite the economic downturn of the recent years, Norfolk saw more than $1 billion in construction in 2010. Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) just opened a new four-story classroom and research facility, while Sentara Leigh Hospital is undergoing a $130.6 million expansion, and Lake Taylor Hospital is in the midst of a $25 million modernization project.

The city’s two public universities — Old Dominion and Norfolk State — also continue to expand, with ODU’s mixed-use University Village burgeoning on the west side of Hampton Boulevard and NSU gearing up to build a new 600-unit student dorm.

Meanwhile, more than $500 million in public and private funds have been invested in nearly 4,000 new housing units during the past four years as Norfolk works to spruce up its neighborhoods and add to its population of 242,800 residents.

Redevelopment is essential. The 66-square-mile city is built out. “We’re destined to be a redeveloping city,” says Bob Batcher, the city’s communications director. “Smart land use is one of our challenges.”
That’s one reason why The Tide’s success is critical. The light-rail system runs from EVMS through downtown Norfolk, adjacent to Interstate 264 before ending at the Virginia Beach city line at Newtown Road. About 3,000 passengers are expected to ride it on weekdays during the opening year, eventually climbing to 7,200 riders by 2030.

News“The Tide has already changed the city by the fact that it exists,” asserts Philip Shucet, president and CEO of Hampton Roads Transit, The Tide’s operator. The former Virginia commissioner of transportation took over the helm of the HRT in February 2010, in the wake of construction delays, cost overruns and allegations of mismanagement. Shucet admonished staff that there would be no more whining and hand wringing; instead, the agency would handle challenges head on. “We’ve dealt with issues above board at every step,” he says. “We’ve told the truth, worked hard and are grateful for the city’s support.”

Shucet’s no-nonsense approach paid off. The Tide’s final cost amounted to $318.3 million, $20 million less than the projected maximum budgeted amount, thanks to HRT’s aggressive cost management during the past year and a half. “We’ve overcome the drama that gripped HRT and almost pulled it to a dead stop in terms of The Tide,” he says. “We’ve learned how to handle construction projects and how to talk with each other openly and honestly.”  The federal government is paying 59 percent of the system’s cost, with the state chipping in 21 percent and the city providing 20 percent.

Although ridership flourished during The Tide’s opening, Shucet wants those numbers to continue to grow. His five-year goal is to beat the 2030 projected passenger numbers. “Cars would fill the park and ride lots and more communities in the region would seriously consider expansion of transit services,” Shucet says.

Norfolk already is poised to expand mass transit services. Within the next few years, the city plans to introduce state-sponsored intercity passenger rail service via Amtrak through a partnership with Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX. The city has proposed a multimodal facility at Harbor Park that would be a fully integrated transportation hub for high-speed rail, light rail, intercity buses, intracity buses and ferry operations. “We expect light rail and intercity rail to be game changers for Norfolk,” Mayor Paul Fraim told those gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to kick off the opening of The Tide.

Shucet expects Norfolk to grow around light rail stations with the system influencing land-use patterns and the development of businesses and neighborhoods. “When new forms of transportation are present, they will influence land-use development around them,” he notes. “When 3,000 people a day get on and off at 11 stations, it’s going to change something.”

Shucet believes that extension of light-rail service to other Hampton Roads cities eventually will happen, despite the opposition of naysayers. “As The Tide is in service for a year, two years, people’s attitudes will change. It’s likely more people will see the value in having a choice that heretofore never existed.” 

To prove his point, Shucet describes how a Virginia Beach resident who owns a downtown Norfolk breakfast spot told him he could not wait to park at the Newtown Road lot and ride The Tide into work. “I think there are a lot more of him out there than people think. We may blow that 3,000 out of the water in the first year.”

To encourage ridership, HRT offered ODU, EVMS, NSU and Norfolk Southern Corp. a flat rate for all students and employees to use any HRT service. The agreement covers 33,000 people, including NSU’s 7,000 students.

Tony Atwater, who became president of the university in July, is happy that two of The Tide’s 11 stations are on NSU’s campus. He believes the light-rail stops signal a new era of development for NSU, especially as the university advances plans to develop student housing, retail and an arts and performing venue along the Broad Creek corridor. “It’s an honor and a great opportunity for us,” Atwater says. “It encourages us to look at our role in terms of being a destination.” He believes that as more people ride The Tide, more will visit NSU’s campus for athletic and entertainment events. “It’s an opportunity for the university to have a greater impact on the Norfolk area.”

The Tide’s western terminus is at EVMS where 1,000 students are enrolled in the school’s medical and health-professions programs. Four days before The Tide began service, EVMS opened a four-story, $60 million facility, which will allow it to expand medical-school classes by 30 percent and physician-assistant enrollment by 60 percent or about 30 additional medical and PA students until 2015. This year, EVMS admitted 140 medical students, an increase of 22 over last year.

Three stories of the building have classrooms with up-to-date audio and visual technology, while the top floor will focus on cancer research, one of the school’s primary thrusts. EVMS is one of the first research institutions to focus on proteomics, a promising scientific discipline examining proteins that could yield new cancer-diagnosis tools that show the presence of cancer, as well as its aggressiveness. “This [facility] has contemporary lighting and state-of-the-art equipment,” says EVMS President Harry T. Lester. “Our expectation is that productivity will go up substantially.”

EVMS collaborated with ODU’s modeling and simulation program to develop a CAVE (Cave Automated Virtual Environment) for the building’s second floor. The room-sized virtual-reality system uses advanced technology to create a simulated operating room complete with an attending physician and nurses. CAVE will allow the school to integrate modeling and simulation with clinical rotations in local hospitals. “Our whole modeling and simulation and professional skills program enables all students to get the same clinical experience,” says Mark Babashanian, vice president for administration and finance. “Students can see broken bones or how to react to the flu, and we can better measure their competencies.”

Interaction with local physicians and patients is a prime component of EVMS students’ education. Lester notes that community service is one reason many students are attracted to the school. “It’s remarkable how many students come here because they know they will immediately get out meeting the community,” he adds.

Last year, EVMS students opened Virginia’s only student-run free clinic after performing rotations through free clinics in other Hampton Roads cities because there were none in Norfolk. “This has been a great learning experience for the students and a great opportunity for them to be helpful in the community,” Lester says. “It’s something very important to the community, and I’m pleased our students are the ones who drove this thing.”

EVMS’ role in advancing medical research in the region fits in with Norfolk’s efforts to ensure younger residents put down roots in the city. Concerned about a “brain drain,” city officials are developing policies that encourage vibrant, dynamic and new ideas, such as entrepreneurial businesses. “Those kinds of visionary projects turn the city around so the younger generation decides there is value to stay here,” Batcher says. The city is working with downtown commerce corridors, as well as those in Riverview, Little Creek, Ghent and Ocean View to develop businesses most suitable for the neighborhoods.

With a 9 percent unemployment rate in July, creating and retaining jobs is a top priority. Acknowledging that Norfolk historically has one of the region’s highest unemployment rates, Batcher adds that the city is cultivating neighborhood and school resources to design work-force development programs. One bright spot is the Virginia Renaissance Center, located at the former Ford Norfolk Assembly Plant, which focuses on innovative products and services. Earlier this year, Belgium-based Katoen Natie (KTN) announced plans to set up a warehousing and distribution facility at the center which will ultimately lead to the creation of 225 jobs. KTN has been acquiring permits in preparation to open.

The city also hopes to reinvigorate the fading Waterside. The festival marketplace opened with great fanfare in 1983 and helped spark downtown’s revival, but today many of its retail spaces lie vacant, and the facility is in need of repair. Last year, the city surveyed citizens for their ideas on Waterside’s future.  Suggestions included turning the marketplace into a fish market, library or gambling casino. In response, city leaders have decided to turn over Waterside’s management to a private firm and plan to seek bids this fall from companies interested in running the complex. Batcher says city leaders and the community want Waterside to succeed. “This community does care about it and has high expectations for it.”

Norfolk residents also expect great things for their neighborhoods and want to help achieve those expectations. “Citizen engagement is a big thing,” Batcher says, adding that City Manager Marcus Jones ramped up community involvement after starting work last February. Anticipating a $52 million gap in the city’s budget, Jones talked to 1,000 residents over three weeks to determine how to best close it. In May, City Council passed a balanced budget of more than $1 billion. “Our residents want to be part of the solution,” Batcher says.

Judging from initial ridership numbers for The Tide, they want to be part of Norfolk’s light rail system. Shucet is optimistic those numbers will remain high, ultimately affecting the region’s overall growth. “The opportunity for people to make the choice to use a different mode of transportation directly influences how we choose to move in the future.” 

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