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Six-month-old Norfolk light rail beating expectations

February 22, 2012

By Debbie Messina
The Virginian-Pilot
© February 18, 2012


Measuring The Tide's impact in its first six months goes beyond noting that there's standing room only on many trains heading out of downtown at 5 p.m., and that many more people are riding than were expected.

Consider that roommates Stephanie Garcia and Jubilee Whaley rented an apartment within walking distance of a station so they could ride to college and work.

Or that Kevin Henderson realized he and his wife need only one car between them because he commutes to work every day on The Tide.

Or how Nick Georges slowed the pace of his life to ride a bike on a nature trail from his home to the nearest rail station, but then sometimes never boards the train and keeps pedaling.

Norfolk's 7.4-mile starter light-rail line, which launched six months ago Sunday, has drawn an average of 4,642 riders on weekdays, 4,850 on Saturdays and 2,099 on Sundays, when trains run fewer hours. About 2,900 weekday riders had been forecast.

Since it opened on Aug. 19, nearly 750,000 trips have been taken on The Tide.

Hampton Roads Transit President and CEO Philip Shucet predicts that The Tide will hit its 20-year projection of 7,200 daily rides within three years.


Interactive map: How to ride The Tide


Ray Amoruso, HRT's chief planning and development officer, is confident a customer survey scheduled for next month will confirm that many of The Tide's riders are first-time transit-users.

"Light rail has been a beacon for this organization to attract new customers," he said. "I also think it's gotten citizens of this region more focused on transportation choice - that there are choices beyond the single-occupant automobile."

Ken Scott was skeptical when light rail was being planned and built. As a Norfolk citizen, he worried about the impact on taxpayers. As a resident of a neighborhood adjacent to the rail line, he was frustrated by construction and detours getting to his home.

"I take that all back now," said Scott, who is retired from heading the Norfolk airport and regularly takes light rail for meetings downtown, to meet friends for lunch, and for medical appointments. "It's a great service."

He said the trains are reliable, clean and safe. Light rail has an on-time rate of 99.1 percent.

Kimberly Yates started riding this month when her job was transferred to downtown Norfolk.

"I didn't want to deal with the traffic and the parking," she said. "I'm definitely less stressed, less rushed."

All it took for her co-worker Mary Augustus to start riding The Tide was paying $12 to park for the day. She did it twice before hopping aboard light rail.

Adelia Green, who drives to the Military Highway park-and-ride from her Shore Drive home and then rides The Tide downtown, likes saving money and avoiding congestion.

"It takes a little more time, but it's worth it, not dealing with traffic in and out of Norfolk every day," she said.

Green's commute is paid for by her employer, Norfolk Southern Corp.

Norfolk Southern is one of 13 businesses and institutions so far to enter agreements with HRT to pay a fee that allows their employees and students to ride rail, buses and ferries for free. Among the largest are the city of Norfolk, Old Dominion University, Tidewater Community College and Norfolk State University.

In all, nearly 70,000 people can ride for free while HRT collects more than $700,000 a year.

Shucet said HRT has not had to persuade employers to try it out, rather that many have come to HRT asking to be part of the program.

Meanwhile, HRT's safety record for its first six months is "stellar," said Martin Schroeder, chief engineer for the American Public Transportation Association.

There were three minor accidents (two with cars and one with a bike) while drivers were training, but since The Tide started carrying passengers, there have been no collisions.

Schroeder said a 2009 federal study of light-rail systems shows an average of 10 accidents per system per year.

"If you compare The Tide to other systems out there, you're doing better than average," he said.

Shucet credits a number of factors, including a public education campaign, operator training, and a hazard analysis that added rumble strips and fences to some sections shortly before opening.

But mostly, he said, it was working closely with Norfolk's traffic department to ensure that the traffic signals and the train signals are in sync, so that cars, pedestrians and trains aren't in an intersection at the same time.

"We revisited some intersections two, three, a half-dozen times," he said. "... All of that has paid off."