Norfolk Light Rail

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Gerald Neily

Sep 16, 2010, 9:10:52 AM9/16/10
I promised you all a report on my travel through Norfolk last week where I saw their almost completed light rail line.

The track looks completed but they are working on the electrification and the stations. From I-264, I saw some vehicles stored along one segment. They look about the same as the low-floor vehicles the MTA wants to use in Baltimore, although perhaps somewhat wider. The station platforms also look about the same (perhaps around 200 feet in length).

Most of the 7.4 mile line is on pre-existing railroad right of way, with a new elevated portion near their new minor league ballpark. Downtown it is on mostly low volume local streets rather than on the wide boulevards that carry most of the traffic. There are no tunnels.

In sum, the design specs seem very similar to the Baltimore MTA's proposed Red Line, perhaps slightly more "robust" than B'more, but the cost of the system is far far less. The entire line was supposed to cost about $250 million when construction first started several years ago, but has overrun by over $100 million more since then. Many people are reportedly incensed, but the excuse I've heard is that the Norfolk line was so cheap in the first place that a large overrun in percentage terms (40% or more) is not all that bad in absolute dollar terms.

Compare that with Baltimore's Red Line, which would supposedly cost $1.8 billion (seven times as much) for a line just less than twice as long, and with very similar vehicles and stations to Norfolk and thus a very similar inherent capacity.

The Baltimore Red Line is like buying a KIA to save money, and then loading it up with optional equipment like undercoating and seat warmers so that it ends up costing as much as a Mercedes. A similar cost overrun in percentage terms (40%, which is nothing out of the ordinary) would be a disaster in dollar terms.

Norfolk's light rail line looks very nice for what it is. They've still got Nordstrom and Dillard's department stores downtown in a big enclosed mall, and the light rail line would serve them. Overall, they've got the trappings of a real city but in a slightly "lite" sort of way without the grit, so the slightly tinker-toy feel of modern light rail will fit in. Its a bit like the semi-ersatz look of our own Inner Harbor, but without the high contrast to the old traditional "real urban" part of downtown. Norfolk even has a failed Harborplace which is being reused in a more modest way. They've also got the AAA minor league version of our Orioles, with many of the same players before they were promoted.

I'm not trying to be condescending here. The ridership projection for Norfolk's light rail is modest (7130 to 11,400 according to Wikipedia - less than many B'more bus lines), reflecting the modest cost and design standards.

Compare that to the B'more Red Line - $1.8 billion for 60,000 alleged riders on a line with about the same design specs. Clearly Baltimore is the system that is doing the high stakes crap shoot.

The biggest problem I can see with Norfolk's line is that the suburban section ends very inconspicuously in a very low density area without much in the way of feeder bus facilities or parking. Access is good, but it is so auto-oriented that it may be irrelevant. But it is far enough out to get around the river that restricts access to and from the south in the inner corridor (to Portsmouth). In general, it looks like the terminus location was a bad political compromise. It very obviously should have ended several miles beyond at a major new Virginia Beach town center that has major high rise buildings. I'm sure someone's agenda is that this light rail stub is just the "foot in the door" to eventually get it extended. As in Baltimore, urban and suburban political agendas create strange bedfellows and strange plans.

Compare that with Baltimore, where the multi-billion Red Line is going to make it very difficult to ever build anything else beyond.

Overall, I very much like the Norfolk light rail line. It has the same kind of modern feel that I wanted for the Baltimore Red Line - a low cost surface semi-streetcar line that fits well in with its environment and would provide a step-down in the hierarchy from our heavy rail line which should serve as the backbone of the overall transit system. Instead of trying to emulate a heavy rail subway but with tinker-toy low capacity design specs, cost would be far more modest, commensurate with what it can actually deliver.


Sep 17, 2010, 12:02:16 AM9/17/10
to BALTOmorrow
It sounds low cost, low benefit, low impact. I guess what else can one
really do with a place like Norfolk?
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