Wednesday, June 6

Riding the Tide in Norfolk

Last week I had a chance to ride the Tide light rail, an addition to the transportation system in Norfolk, Virginia that's coming up on one full year of operation. We utilized the park and ride at the Newtown Road Station, at the eastern end of the line, and traveled to MacArthur Square in the center of Norfolk. Conveniently, the same day pass could be used for the ferry to Portsmouth, so we walked the two blocks down to the port and crossed the river just in time to serendipitously catch a Memorial Day parade down High Street.

It's not exactly obvious that the Tide, in its current form, would be successful. The Hampton Roads region is not terribly dense. Robert Cervero has estimated that light rail needs an average of 30 people per gross acre around the stations to be in the top quarter of cost-effective transit systems in the country. The stations along the Tide average around 5 people per gross acre. Overall public transportation ridership in the Hampton Roads area has been very much below the national average, a statistic that does not bode well for new investment. On top of this, the route defies a fairly standard rule of transit planning. A transit system ideally should have destinations at both ends, in order to maximize usage for both directions of travel. When Virginia Beach decided to opt out, it left the end of the line stranded in the middle.

Yet the service has done fairly well in terms of actual ridership. Between August 2011 and February 2012, weekday trips have average around 4,700, which significantly exceeds the initial 2,900 projection for the first year. (I wonder if ridership might be undercounted somewhat. On our way back to the parking lot, I noticed that some riders who were done for the day handed off their day pass to strangers who were just arriving.)

However, it's still several decades too early to adequately judge the Tide. Like all infrastructure, the Tide will likely shape the conditions of its own success over time. The Newtown Road station might remain a park-and-ride because of its highway access, but I can imagine a sizable parking garage being erected next door as demand grows. It's already the most popular station. Light rail shifts some burden of parking away from downtown, so that the more valuable downtown land can be redeveloped into more productive uses.

The stations in between are poised for transit-oriented development. Norfolk planners have anticipated this and specifically zoned the areas around these stations to utilize the infrastructure to its fullest extent. Neighborhood associations in the area are also supportive. Ironically, the same low densities around the stations that might have caused elected officials to think twice about the whole project could be a net benefit. There's potential.

The long-term success of the Tide will ultimately depend on its expansion to other major destinations in the region, especially the Virginia Beach oceanfront and the Norfolk Navy Base. The City of Virginia Beach seems to be warming to the idea. Their 2009 Comprehensive Plan designated most of the proposed corridor for growth, and identified light rail as a viable transportation alternative. Then, the city purchased right-of-way that could be used for the alignment in 2010. Once again, Virginia Beach will hold a referendum on light rail.  In November, voters will decide whether to use "reasonable efforts to support the financing and development of The Tide light rail into Virginia Beach."