The rail thing

Tide’s success, new Amtrak service offer hope for congested region

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Print this page by Elizabeth Cooper

“Build it and they will come” could have been the rallying cry for proponents of Norfolk’s light rail system. And, as early ridership numbers show, they would have been right.

About 2,900 weekday riders were predicted to climb aboard when The Tide debuted in August. Six months later, the 7.4-mile light-rail line was drawing an average of 4,642 passengers on weekdays, 4,850 on Saturdays, and 2,099 on Sundays when operating times are reduced. And, those numbers are predicted to continue growing. Philip Shucet, who stepped down as president and CEO of Hampton Roads Transit this spring after getting The Tide up and running, expects the system to reach its 20-year projection of 7,200 daily passengers within three years.

Light rail supporters endeavored for 15 years to bring the $318 million system to fruition amidst cost overruns and allegations of mismanagement. They say passenger numbers validate The Tide as a win-win for the city and the region. “The more people ride transit, the more they like it,” says Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim. “It’s widely accepted.” 

It soon could get the green light for expansion. Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms called for a referendum to gauge voters’ support for extending The Tide into Virginia Beach. “Everywhere I go, people of all ages say, ‘We have to get light rail in Virginia Beach,’” Sessoms said in his State of the City address earlier this year. “I concur 100 percent.”

The city had planned to wait for the results of a light-rail study at the end of the year, but Sessoms says The Tide’s popularity indicates it’s time Virginia Beach voters have their say. Any vote, though, would be non-binding because City Council would have the final say.

The system ends at the Virginia Beach city line. Preliminary estimates indicate that it would cost $807 million to extend it to the oceanfront or $254 million to go to the Town Center of Virginia Beach. Norfolk also plans to extend light rail to the Naval Station Norfolk and will ask Hampton Roads Transit to conduct a study to determine the costs. In addition, HRT’s governing board has raised the possibility that light rail could eventually make its way to the Peninsula.

Light rail is just one innovative approach for tackling Hampton Roads’ massive transportation problems. Home to more than 1.6 million residents, as well as the world’s largest naval base, a premier East Coast port and a preferred vacation destination for thousands of tourists each year, the region’s highways, interstates, tunnels and bridges are bursting at the seams, frustrating residents and visitors.

Along with the region’s first light rail system, Norfolk soon will be home to South Hampton Roads’ first passenger rail service since 1977. Amtrak passenger trains are slated to begin running from a station at Norfolk’s Harbor Park to Richmond, Washington, D.C., and ultimately New York City and Boston by late December. About 67,000 passengers are expected to use the service annually. Currently, about 44,000 South Hampton Roads residents travel to Newport News to catch an Amtrak train. As part of the project, the Newport News station will undergo upgrades.

State and local officials expect passenger rail to boost the region’s economy while easing congestion on interstates, bridges and tunnels. “Not only will Hampton Roads residents avoid traffic congestion on I-64 and I-95, but someone in Boston or New York City has the opportunity to come into Hampton Roads the same way,” says Thelma Drake, director of the state’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

Coupled with light rail, Amtrak trains also could be a windfall for Virginia Beach. “If light rail is extended to the oceanfront, you could get on a train in New York City, go all the way to the oceanfront and never need a car,” Drake notes.

Rail service will be linked to The Tide, Hampton Roads Regional Transit buses and the Portsmouth ferry system through an intermodal transportation hub. “It’s a huge step forward,” Fraim says. “It becomes a game changer for the southside of Hampton Roads.”
Drake says passenger rail is a plus for the entire area. “We are working together well as a region and do understand we need different transportation projects.” The Tide’s success hasn’t hurt, either. “It creates that much more excitement for a train to see how well The Tide is doing, and now you can ride The Tide to get to the train.”

Meanwhile, many motorists who regularly use the Midtown and Downtown tunnels to cross the Elizabeth River between Norfolk and Portsmouth are fighting the state’s plans to impose tolls on the tunnels beginning this summer. Revenue from the tolls would help finance a $2.1 billion construction project that includes a new two-lane tube adjacent to the Midtown Tunnel, expansion of the Martin Luther King Freeway in Portsmouth and improvements to the Midtown and Downtown tunnels. Construction of the new tunnel is expected to begin later this year, with completion targeted for 2017.

No one denies a new crossing is crucial for the entire region. The 50-year-old Midtown Tunnel is the most heavily traveled two-lane road east of the Mississippi and a vital link between Portsmouth and Norfolk. Despite that, a decade ago voters rejected a referendum to raise the local sales tax to fund construction of a new tube. The state Department of Transportation has formed a public-private partnership with Elizabeth River Crossings to get the project moving.  Elizabeth River Crossings would collect tolls, with motorists assessed $1.84 each way during rush hour and $1.59 in non-peak times. The tolls would be in place for 58 years and are subject to a 3.5 percent annual increase.

Opponents argue that the levy is unconstitutional because General Assembly members and local elected officials did not have the opportunity to review or comment on the public-private partnership. Supporters stress that, while the tolls are not the ideal option, the need for a new crossing overrides objections. “We missed opportunities to come up with a reasonable plan to fund transportation,” says John Hornbeck. He’s the president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, which pressed to ensure tolls would come in below $2. “Now the reality sets in, and we’ve got a real problem.”

Portsmouth leaders say the fees would be devastating to residents who regularly travel through the tunnels. “Ground zero is Portsmouth,” contends Charles Greenhood, who owns Brutti’s, a downtown Portsmouth restaurant. “Our city is isolated to begin with. If they put tolls on those tunnels, it would isolate us even more. It would be like putting up the Berlin Wall in the middle of the Elizabeth River.”

Hampton Roads legislators at­­tempted to blunt the impact of the tolls during this year’s General Assembly session. Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, asked Gov. Bob McDonnell to scale back the project so that tolls could be reduced. He wanted to eliminate the Martin Luther King Freeway extension to lower costs and redirect to the tunnel project $500 million scheduled to be used to revamp U.S. 460. Under his proposal, toll collections wouldn’t start until the tunnel project was complete.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, proposed postponing the collection of tolls until January 2014, a move she estimated would cost the state about $125 million. That provision was included in the Senate budget bill, but not the House version.

The toll abatement plan, however, did not survive a compromise budget deal hammered out in early April by House and Senate negotiators. The tentative deal also did not include plans to issue bonds to reduce fees on the Dulles Toll Road. That money would be used to finance the extension of Metrorail to Washington Dulles International Airport.

Just before the budget compromise was to come up for vote on April 17, McDonnell requested the Commonwealth Transportation Board allocate up to $100 million for the Hampton Roads project, delaying the collection of tolls until January 2014.

The toll controversy at times has strained relations in South Hampton Roads. Portsmouth toll opponents, such as Greenhood, voiced frustration that other cities in the region had not been as vocal about the issue.

In recent years, cohesion was on the upswing as Hampton Roads’ 16 municipalities united to help cushion the region’s economic base when the Norfolk-based U.S. Joint Forces Command was closed. The region’s congressional delegation also worked together to fight the Navy’s attempts to reassign a nuclear aircraft carrier from Norfolk Naval Station to Mayport, Fla., a move that would have cost Hampton Roads 6,000 jobs and $425 million in annual revenue. Their efforts paid off earlier this year when budget restraints led the Navy to withdraw plans to move the carrier.

Currently, Hampton Roads cities are combining resources for OpSail 2012 on June 1-12. Festivities commemorate the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 and feature tall ships from dozens of nations, a parade of sail, an air show and naval ships. It’s the largest event the region has ever staged, and officials predict that 1.5 million people will attend OpSail during the 12 days, generating more than $150 million in revenue for Hampton Roads.

Many activities will take place in downtown Norfolk, which will host its annual Harborfest celebration in conjunction with OpSail, but vessels will be docked throughout the region. “This will expose Hampton Roads to thousands of visitors who are coming for the first time just to see the ships and will showcase the entire port of Virginia which has operations in Portsmouth and Newport News as well as in Norfolk,” Fraim says. 

More news from the Hampton Roads region:

Downtown projects
Seeking the spotlight


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