The Tide for Norfolk

The Tide remains the future of urban transportation in Hampton Roads. Whether that future is embraced, postponed or canceled won't be fully decided for years.

Norfolk's light rail line from Newtown Road to the medical center on the city's west side was designed as a starter system. It was built to connect to extensions paralleling Virginia Beach Boulevard toward the Oceanfront and to Norfolk Naval Station, then perhaps to Old Dominion University and Oceana. Maybe it would even cross the Elizabeth River.

It doesn't go too far to say that Norfolk's rail system depended on those connections for its ultimate success. Call it optimism, call it regional cooperation, but The Tide wasn't built to maximize its utility to Norfolk. It was built so that other cities could link to it easily.

That makes good sense, especially as gasoline hurtles above $4. But for a variety of reasons, The Tide's expansion will be delayed.

Last week, Virginia Beach got a very early look at the price tag to run a train from Newtown to the Oceanfront: $807 million. A shorter extension to Town Center could cost $254 million. Either way, that's a lot of money.

A light rail line would be much cheaper than adding capacity to Interstate 264 and far less disruptive. Rebuilding the interchange at I-264 and I-64, for example, would cost about the same as bringing light rail to Town Center, without adding significant new capacity to the highway system or providing an alternate way to get from place to place.

Still, light rail's cost alone may make the project difficult for leaders in the Beach to support until the economy rebounds.

Sadly, the price tag is not the only problem.

The federal government is investigating Norfolk's initial proposal, questioning how the early estimate was off by $100 million. People may face criminal charges.

Norfolk's $338 million system, which was supposed to open in late 2009, has been plagued by repeated delays, many of them preventable with better planning. There were problems with the way rights of way were obtained and how property was condemned.

An unnecessary and expensive fight with Norfolk State resulted in a station being moved to the wrong side of the street.

Now, as The Tide prepares to open this year, money everywhere is tight. The economy is stalled. Unemployment remains high. Nobody is developing much of anything, either residential or commercial. Things will eventually get better but not for a while.

Those factors have materially changed the financial conditions and politics surrounding light rail in just a few short years. Politicians across the region do not trust Hampton Roads Transit; they're wary of Norfolk's experience with light rail thus far.

They should be.

Norfolk has finally done what it needed to do to get The Tide under control. New management is in place at HRT. Communication with City Hall seems better. But it will take time and money to undo the poor planning and execution that did so much damage to the system's construction schedule and to its prospect for regional success.

That damage creates a vexing problem of its own. The Tide was routed to connect to Virginia Beach, which has predicated redevelopment along the Boulevard on mass transit. The Tide was designed, substantially, to bring commuters to downtown Norfolk. Without connections, the prospect for success is much dimmed. And different.

In a few months, Norfolk will essentially have a $338 million railroad to nowhere that was built to go somewhere soon. The city will pay millions of dollars each year to subsidize The Tide's operation.

Norfolk could, we suppose, rip up the lines, sell off the trains and pretend the whole thing never happened. Despite the catcalls that will grow louder from the no-no-no crowd, that makes no sense, from an urban planning or a transportation perspective.

Instead, the city should seize this opportunity to make light rail work for Norfolk.

The Tide isn't in the right place to do that at the start. It doesn't go to the Naval base or to ODU or to the airport. It doesn't link Ghent to Wards Corner to Ocean View to Broad Creek to Sherwood Forest. It doesn't hitch Norfolk's neighborhoods to Norfolk's employment centers.

The city should begin studying now how to transform a regional rail system into one that works for Norfolk first. Buses can help, quickly and cheaply. Extending The Tide within Norfolk, however, is more likely to inspire changes in the way the city develops and where people live.

What Norfolk needs is success, and sooner rather than later. With so much impatience inspired by initial mismanagement, the city no longer has the luxury of waiting decades, either for other cities to connect or for redevelopment to follow.

Norfolk needs people to ride The Tide to baseball games, to the hospital, to a night on the town. Success for the system in Norfolk needs to be the priority, rather than the first step in a regional network.

The Tide itself will make Norfolk more livable, more attractive to new residents and businesses, more sustainable as a city and commercial center.

To do that, Norfolk may have to change parking patterns, the fare structure, the supporting bus routes, the system's schedule in a way that serves Norfolk. It must make The Tide so attractive that riding it becomes preferable to the alternative.

Only that will begin to change the story people tell about The Tide. If it happens - if light rail can succeed in Norfolk despite its setbacks - The Tide might still have a chance to become the regional transit system everyone hoped for.

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