Two years ago this month, I took a trip to Norfolk and Virginia Beach, VA to visit relatives and to embark on my first ride along a light rail line. In this Friday Rewind post, I will reflect back on my experience in Hampton Roads and how the area is pushing for more transportation choices,
In many respects, Norfolk, VA is very similar to Tampa, FL. Both have similarly structured bus systems that utilize Gillig transit buses, and both transit districts; HART and HRT, are facing the same budgetary issues when it comes to maintaining what they have, as well as trying to expand service wherever they can. Both cities have also had old style streetcar systems in the past, both of which were later dismantled. One key difference though, is that Hampton Roads does not have the type of street grid that Tampa Bay has. Most streets in Virginia Beach for instance, are spider web type, which means that roads either radiate around a central point or zig zag in multiple directions. This makes it much harder to run buses, especially routes with are crucial for employment centers. Another difference is that Norfolk has been able to build its starter light rail line, something that Tampa has been vying to do for many years, and may finally have a real chance of modernizing its heritage streetcar system in the coming years.
Now, let me take you through what I was able to experience while in Norfolk last April…
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.
The MacArthur Center
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.
Proceeding northwestward, I came across the 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.
The Return Trip
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. On July 7, 2013, all transfer center operations moved 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 were no restrooms or other facilities at the site either. 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.
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.
What’s next for public transit in Hampton Roads
If you missed my last few posts on The Tide, then you’ve missed quite a bit. Right now, the fight is on to extend the light rail line into Virginia Beach, specifically Town Center or Rosemont. The ongoing transit extension study has taken many twists and turns throughout the past several months, and now it’s come down to the wire as Virginia Beach city leaders decide on the next stage of the study. Unfortunately, the rail haters have mobilized and are threatening to kill off the entire process by convincing the Virginia Beach City Council to go for the dreaded “No Build” option instead of selecting a Locally Preferred Alternative for the ongoing transit extension study. If this happens, Virginia Beach stands to be set back anywhere from 20 to 50 years when it comes to public transit and providing better transportation choices. Any such setback will also jeopardize the Naval Station Norfolk extension study, as well as other transit expansion efforts in the area.