Growing up in Virginia Beach, VA instilled a sense of pessimism in me about public transportation. Virginia Beach is the largest city in the state, yet the only form of public transportation available to citizens is a rather substandard bus system that is unreliable, questionable in terms of security, and used only by citizens that have no other options for transporting themselves from place to place. Even then, some prefer to simply walk or bike instead of riding the public busses. Furthermore, the bickering of local politicians and citizens in regard to the viability of alternative forms of public transportation in a suburban city led me to believe that any efforts directed at implementing such options would be hopeless. However, in the past two years I have witnessed an awesome change take place in the city of Norfolk, which borders Virginia Beach. I now wholeheartedly believe that a suburban city such as my hometown can, in fact, construct and sustain a form of mass transit other than busses or trollies.
Background: Virginia Beach is part of a larger regional network of cities and counties, referred to as Hampton Roads by locals and known as the Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC MSA according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As of 2010, the population of the MSA was 1.672 million, with approximately 681,000 residents concentrated in Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Having seven counties and eight independent cities has always rendered local leaders nearly helpless when it comes to an integrated approach to implementing viable mass transit options. This is primarily due to competing interests and dissenting opinions amongst localities. I would argue that no other region in the country has a situation quite as unique as Hampton Roads in this regard. Furthermore, the fact that the Chesapeake Bay separates localities on the southside (Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Suffolk) from those on the peninsula only makes matters worse.
The Tide: But it appears that a solution has been found: The Tide light rail system. The Tide is a 7.4 mile light rail line in the city of Norfolk that opened on August 19, 2011. The Tide is sponsored by Hampton Roads Transit and is currently the only light rail system in Virginia. The Tide currently has 11 stops extending from the western terminus located near Eastern Virginia Medical School to the eastern terminus at Newtown Road. Six months after The Tide opened to the public, daily ridership totals averaged 4,650 trips daily, exceeding the forecasted 2,900 trips predicted by experts. The CEO of HRT at the time, Philip Shucet, predicted that The Tide will hit its 20-year projection of 7,200 daily rides within three years. It is safe to say that The Tide has been nothing but a total success so far.
One-way ridership fares are determined by age:
- Adults = $1.50
- Youth (those younger than 18) = $1.00
- Seniors and Persons with Disabilities = $0.75
- Children (height less than 38”) = free
1-Day Pass option:
- Adults = $3.50
- Youth; Seniors and Persons with Disabilities = $1.75
5-Day GoPass option:
- Adults = $16.50
- Youth; Seniors and Persons with Disabilities = $8.75
7-Day GoPass option:
- $17.00 flat fee
30-Day GoPass option:
- Adults = $50.00
- Youth; Seniors and Persons with Disabilities = $35.00
As you can see, a plethora of options exist for riders that adjust fees after taking important ridership attributes into account. This is a considerate and thoughtful way to accommodate a range of social demographics, which in turn increases the likelihood of a diverse ridership pool. Furthermore, tickets and passes can be purchased at numerous locations throughout the city such as retail outlets, public busses, mail order, and more. This makes it even easier for a sizeable portion of local residents to ride The Tide.
Riding The Tide: Riders identify the station where they would like to board The Tide. Tickets and GoPasses can be purchased at vending machines located at every station. Riders then board The Tide, show their tickets to fare inspectors (if requested), and proceed along their route.
On weekdays, The Tide operates from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.; they system operates until midnight on Fridays. Trains dock at stations at fluctuating intervals ranging from every 10 minutes to 30 minutes depending on the hour. On Saturdays, The Tide operates from 6:00 a.m. until midnight. Sundays have a more limited operation schedule from 10:55 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. In case riders are confused about the operating schedule, HRT provides a comprehensive listing of all arrival times for each station on their website.
It should be noted that HRT took into account the fact that some riders may be commuting by vehicle from distant neighborhoods and adjacent cities to the light rail stations, and then continuing their trip into Norfolk aboard The Tide. Exactly 1,237 parking spots are located at five of the 11 stations, making up what HRT refers to as “Park and Ride” lots. This is intelligent transportation design, because it accommodates individuals who may not live in close proximity to a light rail station, yet also desire to use The Tide to get into Norfolk. This is another example of HRT going the extra mile to ensure that The Tide features many conveniences for its riders. If the light rail were to be extended into Virginia Beach, placing Park and Ride lots at some of the new stations would surely entice individuals who would not otherwise use The Tide to at least test it out and see if this transit option suits their needs.
What happens next?
During the November 2012 elections, citizens in Virginia Beach voted on a referendum that asked “Should the Virginia Beach City Council adopt an ordinance approving the use of all reasonable efforts to support the financing and development of The Tide light rail into Virginia Beach?” Approximately 62% of voters approved the referendum, signaling majority public support for such a project.
In order for The Tide to be expanded, however, more change needs to happen. For starters, citizens and local leaders opposed to forms of mass transit need to acknowledge that past transportation planning in South Hampton Roads has been inadequate. Road conditions along I-64 and I-264 are poor and constantly deteriorating. Funding for road maintenance has been insufficient and repairs occur at a sluggish rate. This is not necessarily the fault of HRT, because funding is usually dictated by state and federal agencies, but this still means that projects are not completed in a timely manner. Therefore, it is time for a revolution in terms of thought and practice regarding the availability of alternative forms of mass transit. Light rail, as proven by the success of The Tide, is the most viable option for this sprawling suburban region. It is incorrect to argue that the public would not use a light rail system if it were available, plain and simple. Politicians need to push Richmond to allocate funding for the expansion of this rail system. The bad news is that a landmark transportation bill which just passed the general assembly allocated $200 million in tax dollars to Hampton Roads- but it also stipulated that this money can only be used on fixing the roadways.
I also argue that citizens need to abandon the idea that Hampton Roads cities are autonomous localities with distinct cultural and social differences, and that implementing a form of mass transit linking the cities would be detrimental to their welfare. It is time for the cities of Hampton Roads to consolidate their transportation planning efforts into one united front. The evidence provided by the success of the Tide makes it is increasingly difficult to argue that Hampton Roads would not benefit from such a move. An expansion of The Tide would be an extremely beneficial move for Virginia Beach, and on a larger scale, Hampton Roads.
 U.S. Census Bureau. “Table 22. Metropolitan Statistical Areas With More Than 750,000 Persons in
2010—Population by Age: 2010.” U.S. Census Bureau, 2010. http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0022.pdf.
 Dave Forster. “Hampton Roads can’t use regional tax for mass transit.” Hampton Roads.com, February 26, 2013. http://www.gohrt.com/hampton-roads-cant-use-regional-tax-for-mass-transit/.