A route for light rail

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Print this page by Andrew Petkofsky

Newport News is already planning the route for a light rail system whose construction may be years in the future.
When a feasibility study early last year concluded the city’s population density and expected ridership were too low to qualify for federal funding, Newport News had to postpone immediate hopes for the commuter system. Norfolk already is building a 7.4-mile light rail segment as the beginning of a system that many in the region hope will one day stretch from Newport News to the Virginia Beach oceanfront. 

In March, Virginia Beach announced a deal to buy a 10.6 mile strip of old Norfolk Southern rail right-of-way to possibly extend the system eastward. (See story on page 12.)
Improving public transit has become increasingly important as Hampton Roads population has grown and increased traffic congestion. At the same time, attempts to raise tax funds for more highway construction have failed. Localities are contemplating public/private partnerships in some areas to build bridges and widen tunnels.

Extension of light rail across the Hampton Roads harbor from Norfolk to the Peninsula is part of the overall plan for a so-called “third crossing” over the harbor. The crossing has been routed and is in the 20-year plan for highway construction, but an actual construction schedule is not yet in sight.

Newport News has decided, anyway, to lay out a light-rail route and start obtaining right-of-way according to a concept that emerged from the feasibility study. The rail would run from northwest of the Newport News International Airport and connect the airport with Patrick Henry Mall, City Center at Oyster Point,  Christopher Newport University and a couple of major hospitals along the way, saysAssistant City Manager Neil Morgan.

With a $250 million estimated cost for that first phase, construction is unlikely unless the population density increases enough to qualify for federal money, or the federal rules change, Morgan says. “We’ll have a plan, that, as things get going, we don’t build things that are going to get in the way.”

The city is also studying the alternative of some sort of heavy rail commuter service down the CSX railroad tracks that already run down the spine of the narrow, 25-mile-long city.

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