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Does a proper vision of the future form of Hampton Roads include light rail transit? The question is more controversial than I imagined, most recently triggered by the story in the Virginia Pilot that there could be a referendum in November for the extension of the Tide into Virginia Beach. As of this writing, there is posted nearly 300 reader comments in response to the article written one week ago. The article included some of the political “weighing in” of local elected officials.
My own attitude starts with the notion that the actions to be taken should be directed at maintaining and improving the region as a healthy place to live, recreate, earn a living, enjoying the beauty of the surroundings and preserving it for future generations. (Insert the name of your home place, there should be no disagreement.) Does that vision include light rail transit? I think it does. Here are some reasons that creating a referendum in November are timely opportunity to take:
1. The Tide has demonstrated a measure of success but it is incomplete until it is extended to include linking with a larger geographic area and the other cities of Hampton Roads. (The future of the automobile as the only mode of transportation for creating settlement patterns of the best urban places possible is changing.) The longer the extension of the Tide is put off the greater will be the delay in realizing the best vision of the future of this place, Hampton Roads.
2. There is a financial opportunity to make the extension to Virginia Beach in a not-too-distant future by virtue of the federal funding that is available. It is the best priority to follow, as a practical matter, since it will take decades for the full realization of the light rail network that is desirable in the “best future” vision.
3. A six-million dollar study is underway, purportedly to recommend the most practical form for the future of public transit in Hampton Roads. (There is no doubt that an increased interest in public transit in the future of this region is coming. That is a sure bet. What form it takes, buses or rapid transit or light rail, will shape the future development patterns for the better or worse.) Is it necessary to have a high-powered study completed to have an opinion on a vision of the future? Is the price tag really that much in doubt? Is the allocation of funds to create this transportation improvement that much different than making new roads or bridges to subsidize our dependence on the automobile?
4. Doing nothing, postponing or avoiding taking a stand on how to improve public transit into the best vision of the future for Hampton Roads, is irresponsible. Since a referendum would be necessary at the completion of the study that could delay the time it takes to get the light rail option started and jeopardize the availability of federal funds, not to mention the increased capital expenditures due to rising construction costs.
5. Critics of the extension project have cited the crime problems of the Baltimore Light Rail Station in Linthicum as an inherent objection to light rail. But that is an irrelevant distraction to the opportunities at hand with the extension of the Tide into Virginia Beach. Neighborhoods are not all the same. Presumably spending 6 million dollars on a study provides some insight into recommendations for station location, physical design and security considerations. Linthicum is not Bird Neck Road, that would be the last station on the extension corridor under consideration.
6. Lest it be forgotten, Virginia Beach already owns the existing Norfolk Southern right of way from Newtown Road to Bird Neck Road. That purchase was settled in September 2010. Council members voted unanimously to close the deal. It was a year earlier that the city purchased the former Circuit City property next to Town Center for a future location of a Light Rail Station. At that time the mayor promised a public referendum on the extension of the Tide, upon the conclusion of the transit feasibility study. Adjusting the timing of that referendum, in consideration of the funding sources available, is being a prudent consumer as opposed to a public manipulator.
I am excited about re-shaping neighborhood development patterns that would be driven by the introduction of light rail stations as a result of the extension of the Tide into Virginia Beach. (Extending rubber tire bus routes will not produce the same development opportunities for community place identification.) Yes, some real estate investors will make more than their share of opportunistic wind falls or more modest up ticks. If the vision of the future is for a Hampton Roads to be composed of urban community enclaves with denser development patterns, centralized, walkable, integrated communities and composed of buildings architecturally sustainable and diverse – I say, the sooner the better.