In my second installment of my transit experience in Norfolk, VA, I will go through what transit modes I used while visiting the city, and the observations I gathered while using them. In many respects, the Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) system has many similarities with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) system here in Tampa. Both districts operate their bus systems on a hub-spoke type system, where bus routes originate from centralized transfer centers. Both districts also have Gillig-made buses, including sleek new buses that were ordered within the last three years. Both districts are also experiencing the same funding issues when it comes to expanding services and bus fleets. However, the key difference between the cities of Tampa and Norfolk, is that Norfolk has light rail, something that Tampa has been vying to get for many, many years now.
As I mentioned in my last posting, Light Rail has been on the books in Norfolk since the 1990s, and their journey to get light rail built is very similar in many respects to that of Tampa. Because the starter line has already been built, more and more people in the Hampton Roads area are becoming supportive of light rail, and all of the economic opportunities that the corridor can bring to the area. In fact, I was reading through a PowerPoint presentation the other day about the study that just launched to possibly extend the Tide LRT into Naval Station Norfolk, which is the largest US Naval base in the world and the largest employment center in all of Norfolk. I definitely found the presentation to be very thoughtful and engaging, with two discussion questions at the end to help engage the audience. I also saw a mention about the US Navy endorsing LRT, including the extension of the Tide into Naval Station Norfolk, which I thought was especially awesome!
Extending the Tide LRT into Naval Station Norfolk, and towards the Virginia Beach Oceanfront are crucial to expanding and improving public transit throughout Hampton Roads. If these two extensions are able to be built by 2030, the area could see further extensions towards Chesapeake, Portsmouth, and Norfolk International Airport. The region could also see enhanced bus and ferry services, and eventually a commuter rail system that could connect Hampton, Newport News, Suffolk, and other surrounding areas.
Beginning my journey…
During my stay in the Hampton Roads area back in April, one of my biggest things on my “to-do” list was to ride the Tide LRT. I was able to do exactly that, along with a brief ride onboard bus route 44. I also got to take a brisk walk through Norfolk’s downtown area and the historic Ghent district to the northwest. The weather was just perfect for this journey too, with temperatures in the upper 60s and a nice breeze blowing throughout the day. Take a few moments to look at the Google Map I made below of my journey.
I first parked my car at the Ballentine/Broad Creek Park-and-Ride Lot, just next to the Ballentine/Broad Creek LRT Station. My original plan was to actually use the Military Hwy Park-and-Ride Lot, but I ended up wanting to go just a bit closer to the Norfolk State University Campus, where I could feel the historical charm of the entire city of Norfolk. These two Park-and-Ride lots are two of the four that Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) provides to its customers to allow them to use light rail to get to downtown, instead of hassling with city parking. The other two lots are located at Harbor Park (next to the Harbor Park Stadium) and the Newtown Rd terminus.
Once at the LRT station, I purchased a one-day GoPass that would allow me to ride the bus system and the LRT. I then snapped some photos of the surrounding area as I waited for the next train to arrive. The train shown in this photo arrived just as I walked up to the station. The next train arrived about 15 minutes later. Since this was a Saturday that I rode the train,the frequency of trains was at every 15 minutes.
Heading into downtown
Once onboard the train, I quickly took in the sights of the urban landscape and the sounds of the train rolling along, with automated announcements guiding customers to each station. I’ve noticed that the sound that the Siemens S70 LRV trains make as they pull in and out of each station is very similar to how the Alstom/Bombardier MF 2001 subway trains and Citadis LRV trains in Paris sound like as they arrive and depart. I also liked how sleek, clean, and modern the trains are, as I’ve always been fascinated with modern buses and trains. There are only a handful of light rail lines in the US that still use older, non-articulated types of LRV trains. One of those lines I’ve learned is located in Buffalo, NY. Actually, their system is an LRT/Pre-Metro line, which I’ll profile in a future post.
Once getting off the train, I quickly took in the sights and sounds of the heart of downtown Norfolk, specifically MacArthur Square. This wonderful urban space includes green space that surrounds the current LRT station. I understand that during the construction of the Tide LRT, a couple of buildings along Main St had to be demolished to make way for the stations and track. To the northeast of the MacArthur Square LRT station is the Douglas MacArthur Memorial statue and museum. The building that houses the museum was originally the Norfolk City Hall. The current city hall is located at a small complex of buildings near the Elizabeth River that are a part of Norfolk Civic Plaza. There is also an LRT stop at the Civic Plaza complex.
As you can see by the photo above, the old city hall building is very beautiful. Though I have seen buildings constructed similarly to this, I always think of each city hall to be unique in its own style. As the city of Norfolk grew, I’m sure that there was a point where the old city hall could no longer sustain city operations. That is where the current Civic Plaza complex comes in.
To the north of the station is the MacArthur Center Mall, which I would say is a “watered down” version of Tampa’s International Plaza. The complex comprises of trendy stores like Abercrombie & Fitch, Forever 21, and H&M, as well as higher-end stores like Nordstrom. Despite the mall’s relatively small footprint, it’s still a great place to visit if you have some extra time to shop and drop. And why battle for a parking space, when you can easily take the train into downtown?
Walking through Norfolk
After visiting the mall, I decided to take a northwestward stroll through downtown and its flanking residential district to the west. The old charm of the multi-story apartment buildings really makes Norfolk a pretty neat place to live. There’s a good variety of parks, attractions, and museums to visit, as well as lots of shops and eateries to stop by at. The Virginia Beach Expressway provides quick access to the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, and there’s plenty of opportunities to spend time with nature, including the Norfolk Botanical Gardens. I’ll profile more of these wonderful sights in my final installment of this series.
My next stop along my walking journey was the Fort Norfolk area, just bordering the historic Granby district to the north and downtown Norfolk to the east. This area encompasses many healthcare complexes, including the Sentara Norfolk General Hospital and the Eastern Virginia Medical Center (EVMC). This area also serves as the current western terminus for the Tide LRT. A little further west of this point is a ton of rail yards and industrial shipping docks.
I then proceeded northward towards the historic Granby district, where many centuries-old housing are located. A little further north of where I traveled is Old Dominion University, which is the second major college campus in the Norfolk area. I was really taken away by the unique charm of the older homes and beautiful landscaping. I even got to witness one of the area residents manicuring her wonderful bed of tulips, and these were pretty large tulips too! As I proceeded through the historic Granby district, I was taken even more into the historic charm that Norfolk has to offer, without all the nightclub hubub of Ybor City.
Riding the Bus
Finishing up my wonderful walk through the Granby district, I stumbled upon the Cedar Grove Transfer Center, located along Princess Anne Rd and Salter St. This will remain the downtown Norfolk bus terminal until July 7, 2013, when all transfer center operations will move to an interim terminal along Wood St, just steps away from the Norfolk Scope Arena. Cedar Grove reminds me a lot of the makeshift bus depot that HART once had at the former Tampa Bay Center Mall, because Cedar Grove is nothing more than a parking lot with a few bus shelters on one side. There are no restrooms or other facilities at the site. Eventually, a new, modern bus terminal will be built in downtown Norfolk, equipped with restrooms.
It took me a while to locate a bus route that would get me back to the Tide LRT line, but I did manage to locate the shelter for Local Bus Route 44, which travels towards Fort Norfolk in the southbound direction. As I’ve mentioned in my previous post, HRT’s bus fleet primarily comprises of Gillig Low Floor buses. These buses have either a white or grey livery with waves at the bottom. The interiors are a lot like the 2001 series buses that both HART and PSTA have, but with primarily blue colors.
Returning to Broad Creek
With the height of the afternoon coming to a close, I decided start heading back to Broad Creek so that I could meet up with my family for dinner. Upon arrival to the EVMC/Fort Norfolk LRT station, the train had already arrived and was awaiting departure. I rode the train all the way back to the Ballentine/Broad Creek LRT station and took a few more photos along the way. In fact, I even made a video of my transit experiences, which you can view below, or through my YouTube Channel.
In closing, I’ve truly enjoyed my experience riding light rail for the first time, and truly believe that one day, the Tampa Bay area will finally be able to get a starter line, like the current Tide Line, built. I’m hoping that we can continue to educate everyone about the benefits of transit and convince our elected officials that improved transit will help Tampa Bay remain competitive for many years to come. Though some of our elected officials have realized this very point, others are very hard-pressed to convince. This is why again, we must educate everyone on just how important public transit is to everyone! Whether you ride transit occasionally, every day, or perhaps…not at all.
What’s next in the series?
Originally, I was going to go further into what Tampa can do to improve their transit system in this post. However, because this post is pretty long already, I will be putting this topic into the next installment of this series. I hope to have the 3rd installment ready by the end of July. My 4th and final installment will be published sometime in August and will still go through some places of interest that you can visit in the Hampton Roads area just by using transit!