Tide-View of Broad Creek, 2011
The birthing of any large public works project is problematic. Big ambitious projects are costly. They require careful study, open-mindedness, patience and vision. The United States used to be known as the home of ambitious public works projects. We were the country that built the Erie Canal, tamed the Mississippi and the Colorado, built the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Interstate highway system and sent men to the moon.
Yet today the voting population—the very children and grandchildren of the “greatest generation” that made sacrifices to fight a world war and then came home and made the largest investments in infrastructure in the nation’s history—seems more anxious to avoid responsibility for maintaining and updating the nation’s infrastructure.
But as there are always a few persuasive forward looking people around, large public works projects continue to get built. Such is the case of the recently opened Tide light rail system in Norfolk, Virginia.
I've conducted a lot of research about public transportation across the country and on issues related to light rail, specifically, in a number of cities where it has been built, planned or talked about. There’s always a tug of war between engineers, visionary public leaders and well informed citizens who believe light rail is an effective way to reduce the number of motor vehicles on the road and those who insist that such projects can only be viable if they are completely self-sustaining.
One interesting thing I’ve noticed in my research is that once light rail is up and running many of the people who fought the hardest against it become the loudest to complain that it hasn’t reached their neighborhoods yet.
The Tide Station at Newtown Road, 2011
Here in south Hampton Roads a small number of vocal light rail opponents have resorted to every trick, red herring and conspiracy theory they could think of to discredit the construction of the starter light rail line in Norfolk and its possible extension into Virginia Beach.
Yet there it is now, the Tide, a gleaming new train set and seven or so miles of example and potential.
Seven miles across the southern side of Norfolk isn’t enough to serve many people. And it's far too soon to make any reliable predictions about the Tide’s daily ridership. Yet already, fare-paying commuters are lining up to go back and forth to work and school. Others are using the Tide to go to baseball games at Harbor Park, to shop and dine downtown and to get to appointments at the medical center.
The conversation you hear among Tide passengers is positive. Some riders are rediscovering parts of the Norfolk they'd forgotten about. Others are being introduced for the first time to neighborhoods along the line. Riders I’ve talked to from Virginia Beach and Chesapeake—people who never gave it a minute's thought before—are pondering the advantages of living in Ingleside or Easton Park.
MacArthur Station, 2011
Invariably, onboard conversations end up with people wondering why the Tide wasn't built to serve more people right from the start. For many, the frustration of the Tide is not with its cost or the mismanagement that attended its early stages of construction, but rather why, just when you realize how useful it could be, the train reaches the current end of the line.
But that’s the problem with starter lines. They’re examples, the junctions to which further services are intended to be added.
Happy Campers, 2011
Extension of the Tide will take careful thought and time. But imagine for a moment how nice it would be to glide smoothly from Virginia Beach to work at the Naval Base or, better still, across the James River to work or play in Hampton, Newport News, Williamsburg or Busch Gardens. Imagine not even having to be concerned about traffic on I-64 or at the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel!
Hampton Roads drivers waste millions of dollars and hours sitting in congested traffic. The Tide is a first step, if admittedly a small one, in reducing that waste and turning those hours into productive time and value.
The End of The Line, 2011