Transit Tourism – Norfolk, Virginia – Part 1

Westbound train headed towards the Eastern Virginia Medical Center. Photo taken by HARTride 2012. April, 2013.
One of the Tide Light Rail trains heading towards the Eastern Virginia Medical Center. Photo taken by HARTride 2012 on April 13, 2013.

Greetings everyone!

I recently took a vacation that included a weekend trip to the Hampton Roads, Virginia area to do some sightseeing and visit family in the area. During my stay there, I was able to utilize the transit system in downtown Norfolk, including the city’s light rail line. I’m going to document my observations and experience in three separate posts. In this first installment, I will describe the transit system in Hampton Roads and how the system is similar, yet different from the transit system here in Tampa. Then, in my second installment, I’ll document my transit experience and what the Tampa area can grasp from my observations. Finally, in my third installment, I will point out various attractions and other points of interest that you can easily access via public transit.

Public transit in the Hampton Roads area is provided by Hampton Roads Transit, which is abbreviated as HRT (I will be using the abbreviation throughout the remainder of this post). HRT is in-turn governed by the Transportation District Commission of Hampton Roads (TDCHR), which was created through Virginia state statutes. HRT was formed in October of 1999 via a voluntary merger between the area’s two former transit providers; the Peninsula Transportation District Commission (or PENTRAN) and Tidewater Regional Transit. Now, I have to stress that this merger was voluntary, unlike the current mandates being put through the state of Florida to merge two transit districts in the Tampa Bay area.

A Gillig Phanton bus (# 1807, running on Route 44) pulls into the EVMC station along the southwest edge of Norfolk. Photo taken by HARTride 2012 on April 13, 2013.
A Gillig Phantom bus (# 1807, running on Route 44) pulls into the EVMC station along the southwest edge of Norfolk, VA. Photo taken by HARTride 2012 on April 13, 2013.

The HRT system currently comprises of over 50 bus routes; including 7 express routes (called the Metro Area Express, or simply…The MAX) and 7 commuter routes in the peninsula region (called the Peninsula Commuter Service) that facilitate fast, seamless connections to major employment centers in Newport News and Hampton. In addition to these bus services, HRT also operates a downtown circulator called the Norfolk NET (which runs 7 days a week), and seasonal (summer) beach express service called the Virginia Beach Wave (abbreviated as VB Wave). The VB Wave allows residents and tourists quick and easy access to the various points of interest along the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, including its popular beaches, all summer long!

HRT’s bus fleet primarily comprises of Gillig Phantom and Low Floor buses, the same buses used by various transit districts in Central Florida (although HART and PSTA no longer use the Gillig Phantom). Gillig buses are manufactured in Hayward, CA and thus make a cross-country journey to the eastern seaboard. In addition to the Gillig fleet, there is a fleet of Optima Opus buses still in service. Like many transit districts (including HART), HRT is facing a dilemma with its current bus fleet in the sense that they currently don’t have the funding to replace their oldest buses. From my understanding, the district’s oldest fleet of buses currently date back to 1999. Until recently however, HRT was using buses that dated back to the early 1990s, which I’m sure made fleet maintenance a nightmare.

DSCN0471
The current transfer hub at Cedar Grove.

One of the main transfer hubs for the HRT bus system is located just outside of downtown Norfolk at Cedar Grove. The current setup isn’t much right now, but work is currently underway to build a central hub in downtown, near the Scope Arena, to allow passengers in the downtown core an easier transfer to area bus routes.

HRT also operates the Elizabeth River Ferry, which provides an alternative to driving over the various bridges and tunnels that cross the Elizabeth River. The ferry has three ports of call; the Waterside Ferry Dock at Norfolk’s Waterside Festival Marketplace, and the North Landing and High St Ferry Docks in Portsmouth. During sporting events at Harbor Park Stadium, a fourth port of call is set up just outside of the stadium to facilitate quick service between the stadium and the North Landing Ferry Dock. Ferry services run year-round, but service frequencies vary depending on the time of the year, etc.

Even though the Hampton Roads bus and ferry services provide an alternative to driving, the area’s freeways and surface streets were continuing to be clogged with traffic. Like the Tampa Bay area, the residents of Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, and Portsmouth knew that they needed light rail, but weren’t sure how to go about funding it. During the 1990s, a light rail line was proposed to run from Norfolk to the Virginia Beach Oceanfront via an abandoned freight rail line once operated by Norfolk Southern. In 1999, a transit referendum similar to that of Tampa/Hillsborough County’s referendum in 2010 was presented to voters of Virginia Beach. Unfortunately, voters struck down the referendum and passed their own resolution to not be involved with the planning of light rail for ten years. From that point onward, the city of Norfolk decided to continue plans for a light rail line without Virginia Beach’s involvement.

With rising gas prices and clogged highways, discussion about light rail resurfaced during the course of 2008. The city of Norfolk was determined to bring their light rail plan to fruition by utilizing a portion of the freight rail corridor while remaining within their city limits. This plan would evolve to what is now known as The Tide.

A Siemens S70 LRV train departs the Ballentine-Broad Creek LRT station just outside of downtown Norfolk. Photo taken by HARTride 2012 on April 13, 2013.
A Siemens S70 LRV train (#401) departs the Ballentine-Broad Creek LRT station just outside of downtown Norfolk. Photo taken by HARTride 2012 on April 13, 2013.

The Tide is the first light rail line to be constructed in the state of Virginia, opening to passengers on August 19, 2011. It offers service from the southern fringe of downtown Norfolk to eastern fringe of the city (at Newtown Rd) and provides direct connections to 20 local bus routes and three express bus routes from the station platforms. The entire line spans 7.4 miles and is double-tracked for the entire length, with exception to the terminating stations. In addition; park-n-ride lots are provided at four of the line’s eleven stations to allow commuters and visitors to easily travel to and from downtown Norfolk.

The downtown Norfolk section (between Botetourt St and Park Ave) meanders through city streets and as a result, trains must follow traffic signals to allow vehicular traffic to flow smoothly. When all of the traffic signals turn red, and all vehicular traffic has stopped, the train will be allowed to continue its journey.

The rolling stock used on The Tide comprise of 9 Siemens S70 LRV trains, similar to trains that are used on the LYNX Blue Line LRT in Charlotte, NC. Service frequency on The Tide varies by time of day and day of the week. Weekday peak service currently has trains running every ten minutes, with trains running every 15 minutes during non-peak daytime hours. 30 minute frequency occurs during the late-evening hours, Monday through Saturday.

Here is the listing of all of the line’s current stations:

  • Eastern Virginia Medical Center (EVMC)/Fort Norfolk
  • York St/Freemason
  • Montecello
  • MacArthur Square
  • Civic Plaza
  • Harbor Park
  • Norfolk State University (NSU)
  • Ballentine/Broad Creek
  • Ingleside Rd
  • Military Hwy
  • Newtown Rd

The station names chosen relate to either the roadway by which the station sits at, or a nearby landmark. This naming convention sits in line with what most rail systems throughout the world use. All of the station platforms include traditional style shelters, ticket vending machines, and information boards (containing transit maps, information, and feeder bus schedules). Four stations (Monticello, Civic Plaza, Harbor Park, and NSU) are island platforms, while the rest comprise of two outer platforms (one on each side of the track).

Since the line’s opening, several extensions have been proposed:

  • At the line’s western end, an extension towards Naval Station Norfolk
  • At the line’s eastern end, an extension towards the Virginia Beach Oceanfront
  • Spur lines going into Portsmouth and Chesapeake
  • A possible spur going into Hampton and Newport News

The project currently getting the most attention is the eastern extension towards the Virginia Beach Oceanfront. This plan calls for the current line to utilize the remainder of the old Norfolk Southern freight rail line and terminate at the Virginia Beach Convention Center, which is just a stone’s throw away from the Atlantic coastline. There are currently ongoing studies to examine the feasibility of the extension and an Alternative Analysis plan has been developed to further look into the possibility of either extending the Tide, or to utilize Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to link the Oceanfront.

In November, 2012, voters of Virginia Beach were presented with another transit referendum (similar to the one that failed in 1999). This one would allow for further financing and development of the LRT extension towards the Oceanfront. The referendum passed by a roughly 62/37 margin.

The western-end extension towards Naval Station Norfolk is also getting quite a bit of attention, with a $1.8 million dollar feasibility study just getting underway. The spur line proposals all have been under consideration for some time, but no detailed studies have been conducted as of yet.

To finish up this post, I’m going to outline some similarities between the transit system in Hampton Roads and the transit system in the Tampa Bay Area:

  • HRT, HART, and PSTA all operate bus systems that encompass at least 30 bus routes, including some form of express bus service. Sarasota County (SCAT) also has two express bus routes and Manatee County (MCAT) currently has no express services.
  • HRT, HART, PSTA, MCAT, and SCAT utilize Gillig-made buses, including the Low Floor Hybrid (whether it be the standard version, or the BRT-styled version).
  • At the height of the 1920s, Tampa, Gulfport, and Norfolk all had streetcar lines. These lines unfortunately began to vanish in the 1930s and 40s as buses became the preferred mode for public transport.
  • HRT, HART, and PSTA have seen bus ridership numbers surpass the 1 million mark each month for the past year. I currently don’t have any ridership info for MCAT or SCAT.
  • All five districts have more concentrated bus service towards the city center (Tampa, St. Pete, Clearwater, Bradenton, Sarasota, Norfolk, Hampton), whereas suburban service is more sporadic. The exception (which I’ll discuss in a moment) is Naval Station Norfolk, which has a decent concentration of bus routes that either travel into the base, or run along the base’s perimeter.
  • The Virginia Beach Oceanfront, the Pinellas County Gulf Coast, and the Manatee/Sarasota Gulf Coast all have some form of bus service in place that comprise of regular local bus routes and/or trolleybus service.
  • Both Tampa and Norfolk provide public transit connections to military bases in the area:
    • In Tampa, two local bus routes and two express bus routes enter MacDill Air Force Base: Local Routes 4 and 36, Limited Express Route 24, and Express Route 25. Local Route 36 is the only bus route to provide a connection to the base 7 days a week. The three other routes only provide Monday through Friday service.
    • In Norfolk, there are three local bus routes and two express routes that enter Naval Station Norfolk: Local Routes 2, 3, and 21, and Express Routes 919 and 922. Additionally, Express Route 918 runs along the base’s southern perimeter, though it does not actually enter the base itself.
    • There are no bus routes that enter Naval Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, although Local Route 33 does pass near the base’s southeast gate.
  • Both Norfolk and Tampa have some form of Amtrak mainline rail service.

Now let’s take a look at some key differences:

  • Norfolk currently has the Tide Light Rail Line, whereas the Tampa Bay area does not have any type of light rail system in place.
  • Downtown circulator services vary between the cities of Norfolk, St. Petersburg, and Tampa:
    • In downtown Norfolk, the Norfolk NET circulator service runs 7 days a week, with 15 minute service during weekday rush hours and 30 minute frequency all other times. (NET stands for Norfolk Electric Transit, because the circulator utilizes hybrid buses).
    • In downtown St. Pete, the local bus route 32 provides circulatory service every 35 minutes Monday through Saturday (there is no Sunday or Holiday services). The Route 32 is supplemented by the Downtown Looper Trolleybus service (operated by the city of St. Pete), which Monday through Saturday at varying hours (there is no Sunday or Holiday services).
    • In downtown Tampa, the only form of circulator service is the In-Town trolleybus line, which operates Monday through Friday during rush hours only.
  • The Hampton Roads area does not currently have Bus Rapid Transit, though implementing such service is being considered for the future, and the same can be said for Pinellas and Sarasota counties. Tampa will have its first BRT line this June.
  • The Tampa Bay area currently does not posses any ferry service, though numerous proposals were presented in recent years, never becoming reality. Norfolk currently operates the Elizabeth River Ferry.

In my next posting, as I mentioned earlier, I will go through my experience with using public transit in the area and what the Tampa Bay area can grasp from this experience. I should have this installment posted sometime in June.

3 Replies to “Transit Tourism – Norfolk, Virginia – Part 1”

  1. First off, great post. Looking forward to the 2nd and 3rd installments.

    I did have a few questions for you about HRT and your experience there. (If you’re going to cover some or all of this in the next installment, I’ll wait to find out.)

    -Did you get a chance to ride an Optima Opus? If so, what did you think of it?
    -You mentioned that there were TVM’s located at each station on The Tide. Did you ever see some sort of fare enforcement (i.e., turnstiles, “proof-of-payment,” etc) in effect?
    -You note that both HART and HRT run a similar amount of bus routes. In the case of HART, the grid network (technically a “spiderweb” network) has been designed to allow for transfers at route intersections. HRT in turn appears to have a network that is largely hub-and-spoke, with some of their routes appearing to be extremely circuitous. Does this work for the Hampton Roads area, or is there a need for a change?

    1. Thank you very much Zac! I’m glad that you enjoyed reading this post!

      Here are the answers to your questions:

      1) No, I did not have an opportunity to ride (nor did I see) an Optima Opus bus. My understanding was that there are a few of these buses still in the fleet, but I am not sure for how much longer. In fact, you can find a listing of their active vehicles on the HRT website (http://www.gohrt.com/hrt-public-records/operations-documents/) titled “Current Fleet Inventory”, and I did not see any Optima vehicles listed, which makes me wonder if those buses were already phased out.

      2) The Tide operates on an honor system. HRT expects that you’ve paid your required fare when you board the train. However, there are periodic ticket inspections, which is the case onboard many commuter rail lines throughout the world, so you always need to make sure that you have your ticket with you at all times. Otherwise, you face a fine of $250.00 (unless that has gone up recently).

      3) Yes, both HART and HRT (and even PSTA) operate on some form of a hub-spoke system, though HART seems to be more of a spider web like you mentioned. From what I’ve read on the HRT website (http://gohrt.com/about/), HRT actually contracts with each municipality to provide transit service and each municipality in-turn directs HRT as to how much transit service it can provide to the area. I’m sure that this plays a role in how routes are shaped (in addition to of course employment centers, density, etc.) I strongly believe that the current setup is somewhat inefficient due to some areas not being well served in comparison to others, and I do feel that many changes can be made to the system, but like HART and PSTA, there is currently no additional funding to make drastic improvements.

      I will be going more in-depth about my experience in the 2nd installment.

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