It looks like Hampton Roads Transit’s dream of extending its nascent Tide light rail system into Virginia Beach will remain just that for now. The agency has put the brakes on a $6.6 million feasibility study, citing Federal Transit Administration concerns about the models being used to project the extension’s ridership and costs.


The 12-mile extension, which includes a 10.6-mile former freight rail corridor, is envisioned as means for relieving stress on I-264, the main freeway into Virginia Beach, as well as an impetus to transit-oriented growth and redevelopment of existing areas such as the Virginia Beach Convention Center.


Though the study, performed by Omaha-based HDR, Inc., is only partially complete, the pricetag for the extension’s full build-out is estimated at $807 million. The figure includes eight stations, bridges, a vehicle storage facility, and right-of-way costs, including the City’s $40 million purchase of the rail corridor. HDR’s study was also evaluating other mobility options for the corridor, including bus rapid transit


Hampton Roads Transit and City officials tried to put the best spin on the study’s interruption, calling the “time-out” that could last as long as a year worthwhile to ensure the study’s validity.


However, they may need every minute of the hiatus for the Tide’s unfinished initial 7.4-mile, 11-station segment through downtown Norfolk to reverse months of bad fortune and bad press.


The FTA and U.S. Department of Transportation’s Inspector General are investigating a lengthy list of management issues associated with the project, which has exceeded its original $232 million cost by $107 million and is 18 months behind schedule. The Tide’s problems contributed to the resignation of Hampton Roads Transit’s CEO Michael Townes in early 2010. His successor, former VDOT Commissioner Phillip Shucet, recently had his contract to head the agency extended for another year.


Hampton Roads Transit estimates that when the Tide does open  for service later this year, the system’s initial daily ridership of just under 3,000 will surge, particularly when beach-goers and other visitors are added to the base of commuters. Just how well the system lives up to these expectations may well determine whether the Tide’s future prospects rise once again, or ebb away for good.