One year after Virginia Beach citizens strongly endorsed the concept of a light rail system, the City Council now has three P3 options to consider, along with a publicly financed alternative.
All the proposals begin at the Newton Road terminus of Hampton Roads Transit’s existing Tide light rail system and utilize at least a portion of a city-owned 10.8-mile former railroad right of way that could bring Tide cars to the famed, yet economically struggling Oceanfront.
Parsons Construction Group has proposed building the entire 12.2-mile line, with the option of detouring 1.2 miles through the Hilltop shopping area, a neighborhood Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) officials feel could generate additional riders and more development. No cost or financing details were released. Former VDOT Chief Phil Shucet heads a group interested in building a partial, 5.2-mile extension for an estimated cost of $235 million.
Then there’s a $334 million proposal from American Maglev to use magnetic levitation technology for the entire 10.2-mile route to the waterfront. The system, nicknamed “The Wave,” would work backward, starting with a .8-mile section between the Virginia Beach Convention Center and the Oceanfront, but also require a transfer station at Newton Road for Beach-bound Tide passengers to change mobility modes.
Meanwhile, HRT has estimated that it’d need at least $1 billion to extend the Tide along the city-owned route.
It’ll be at least next summer before all the proposals have been fully analyzed and the real race for selecting one to move forward begins. That may give HRT time to stimulate ridership on the existing 7.4-mile Tide, which has failed to sustain the pace of growth enjoyed when service began in August 2011. October 2013 ridership is roughly equal to that of two years ago, though HRT officials point to the partial federal government shutdown as a potential culprit.
Yet at just over 5,000 weekday boardings, Tide ridership remains nearly 40% ahead of HRT’s predictions. The agency predicted 7,130 passengers would be riding the Tide daily by 2030. The concept of a Virginia Beach transit extension also has the backing of Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D), who also wants the system extended to Norfolk Naval Base, one of the region’s largest employers.
Nevertheless, HRT is currently exploring bus and rail fare increases to stay ahead of rising costs. Just what effect that has, if any, on public support for the Tide and its associated extensions remains to be seen, though money and operational problems compounded by a protracted review process might well lead many of the voters who contributed to the 62% endorsement in last November’s referendum to rethink their support.
The Virginia Beach City Council and HRT would do well to remember the words of Roman consul and poet Silius Italicus: “Make haste! The tide of Fortune soon ebbs.”