TIDE Rises While Metro Flounders

After some delay in transport from the plant in California, the first vehicles arrived yesterday for Norfolk’s TIDE (Tidewater Intercity Direct Express) light-rail system, still under construction. While still a bit rinky-dink – the LRVs are each about the size of an articulated bus, and the 7-mile “starter” route from Eastern Virginia Medical Seminary to the Norfolk/Virginia Beach line doesn’t exactly fit the “Intercity” part – even this small step toward the reinstatement of mass transit service in southeastern Virginia has been a long time coming.

Strangely enough, this seems to be a banner year for Hampton Roads urbanism, with Williamsburg’s Duke of Gloucester Street, Hilton Village in Newport News and the Virginia Beach Boardwalk all winning recognition on the American Planning Association’s 2009 Great Places list. The last strikes me as somewhat puzzling – having been largely raised there, the “strip” reminds me more of Tel Aviv’s more pedestrian waterfront property than one of the great urban beaches like Santa Monica, Miami South Beach, Brighton or Nice – but its inclusion seems to have hinged partly on the Beach finally coming around to LRT. The city purchased the right-of-way in February (having previously dithered about whether buses or bikes should go there) and held a public meeting in September that was rather free of teabagging sentiment for a conservative city that voted down light rail the first time a decade ago. (Even a year ago, the top transportation priority for the Beach was the sprawl-enabling Southeastern Parkway, which still looms to threaten both old-growth forests and the mission of Oceana airbase.)

Ironically, the biggest hurdle in completing a long-awaited “Beach to Base” rail system may be Norfolk’s long-time mayor, Paul Fraim. While he has consistently expressed interest in building a northern extension, Fraim’s preferred route bypasses Ghent – the city’s original transit-oriented neighborhood, and one of the region’s most densely-populated areas – in favor of a trestle over the massive, heavily polluted Lamberts Point coal yard. While this may be cheaper, like with Minneapolis’ southwest extension, it’s neither the most effective route (building LRT thru Ghent, perhaps on Core Street) nor the most expedient (repurposing the I-64 HOV lanes for transit, or building in the Norfolk Southern ROW near the airport).

There’s been a push for quite some time to instate mayoral elections and replace Fraim (a City Council appointee). But it’s difficult to tell if this would genuinely change anything – particularly given the likelihood that a strong-mayor system would follow, likely undermining the otherwise-competent city manager (Daun Hester, also vice-mayor) and the chief planner (Ray Gindroz).

Incidentally, the fact that LRT is getting going so quickly in southeastern Virginia might be something of a raspberry to the Washington area, which (as BeyondDC notes) has been waiting years for delivery on vehicles for its umpteen light-rail and streetcar lines under construction. And that’s only the beginning of DC’s recent transit woes, ranging from increased media scrutiny to suicides to shutdowns – WMATA’s ridership has fallen month after month since a fatal Red Line crash in June made national headlines, despite stagnant gas prices. (News of the restoration of full Red Line service has largely been met with skepticism at best, as apparently evinced by the continuing resurgence of Twitter’s #metrofail hashtag.)

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~ by J.D. Hammond on October 7, 2009.

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