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