Light Rail for VB: Critics Wrong Again

7 06 2009

Today, in the Virginian-Pilot’s “Sunday Forum,” the topic was Light Rail. The ‘pro-light-rail’ piece was written by a VP editorial staff writer named Candy Hatcher, who recently visited Phoenix, Arizona and their new light rail system. The ‘anti-light-rail’ piece was written by a retired teacher in Virginia Beach named Jerry Carter. I found Ms. Hatcher’s piece to be well-thought out and thorough. Mr. Carter’s piece, however, seemed to be the same old propaganda that has been thrown around since in inception on Hampton Roads’ Light Rail potential. As you all know, since I am not one to let blatantly incorrect information go unnoticed, I have decided to respond to Mr. Carter on 757HR and in an email direct to him. Here is my response:

Mr. Carter,

I recently read your guest-column in the Virginian-Pilot’s “Sunday Forum.” While I commend your effort to hold an opinion on the matter of Light Rail in Virginia Beach, I think that your article relies heavily on misguided information. I refuse to simply tell anybody that they are wrong but rather believe that every person should have the right to hear a well-thought-out rebuttal on their own arguments and in turn have the right to respond to such a rebuttal. That said, I would like to address each of your points individually.

  1. As with every anti-light rail article, you start out mentioning cost-overruns. Not all of the additional $56 million dollars should be considered a cost-overrun. Approximately $10 million can be attributed to inflation, using the CPI from 2007 – 2008. There is also the costs of doing construction in Downtown Norfolk. Over 400 years, the city has accumulated vast networks of abandoned infrastructure. To give you an example, in a recent project crews pulled a wooden water pipe out of the ground. In addition to all the abandoned infrastructure, the city also has to work with the old trolley/railroad tracks that crisscross through Downtown, as well as nearly a dozen layers of roadway materials. The typical Downtown street has multiple layers of asphalt on top of concrete on top of trolley/railroad tracks on top of more concrete on top of cobblestone on top of trash. The majority of Downtown used to be river and has since been filled in with debris. Also, if the city wants to, say, upgrade aesthetics of certain LRT facilities, those costs are factored into the budget. On top of all of the city-mandated improvements, the state has added $6.9 million of additional costs regarding communications systems to enhance safety and security. The National Academy of Science once reported that the cost overruns on large transportation projects such as light rail frequently fit between 50% and 100%. Considering that range, I think our 24% cost increase is acceptable. The project’s $38 million per mile cost is far less than the projected $100 million per mile cost of the proposed Southeastern Parkway. Finally, the Norfolk project’s costs are higher in the Downtown area. Virginia Beach needs to focus on the lower costs of the project east of NSU.
  2. You mention that “it ultimately boils down to what best benefits each locality.” This was a good philosophy back in 1963, when Virginia Beach and Chesapeake were formed to keep separated from the ‘inner city’ of Norfolk due to reasons which may or may not have been motivated by fear of the poor and of minorities, but that is for a different conversation. In today’s Hampton Roads, each ‘locality’ is but an organ in a larger bodily system. This ‘body’ of Hampton Roads needs all of its organs to survive. Cut out the heart and both die. Cut out the lungs and both die. Cut Virginia Beach off from the rest of the region and both suffer. Portsmouth, Chesapeake, and Newport News are all looking for ways to bring Light Rail to their cities. If Virginia Beach fails to connect to the region, both will suffer.
  3. You mention how the light rail does not connect to Lynnhaven Mall or to the Virginia Marine Science Museum but it connects to all of the Downtown attractions. This is due largely to the fact the Virginia Beach is more concerned with keeping costs down that with connecting what should be connected. If they truly want it to work, Virginia Beach will use bus connections to connect key places to the light rail just as Norfolk is rerouting buses to make connection with other key places. The lack of LRT connections to Virginia Beach attractions is not some Norfolk conspiracy, but rather a product of Virginia Beach’s Planning.
  4. I’m not sure what you were getting at in your violence paragraph. I seems that you are afraid tourists might flee the violence of the Oceanfront for the relative safety of anywhere else. I cannot imagine that this interpretation is wrong because you said the crime was an advantage to Norfolk. Perhaps direct this concern to the Virginia Beach Police and City Hall.
  5. Next, you address traffic. You think that instead of making the LRT go to the Oceanfront, it should go to the Naval Station. It will go to the Naval Station. In fact, the Naval Station extension is the next on the list right behind the Oceanfront. You acknowledge that a Naval Station line would “make a reasonable difference.” Where would the riders come from? Virginia Beach. How do you expect the riders of the Naval Station line to get there if there is no line going through the Beach. The Oceanfront is not its only stop.

If Virginia Beach votes to abstain from Light Rail, everybody loses, especially Virginia Beach. In today’s times of increasing energy costs, consolidated living spaces and increased density is the way to go. Currently, Virginia Beach’s 400,000 residents take a toll on I-264. Just wait until they have 500,000 or 600,000. How will they get around? We have to consider this now. It has taken 20 years to get Norfolk’s LRT project started. We cannot wait until gridlock to think about alternatives.

For the sake of Hampton Roads’ future, my future, and the future of my children, I hope that Virginia Beach makes the forward-thinking decision to include light rail in their plans.

Thank You,
Russell Manning


MPO to TPO: A Change For The Better

1 06 2009

For those of you that have not heard, our MPO is becoming our TPO among other changes. If you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, relax; you are in the majority. Let me explain it. ‘MPO’ stands for Metropolitan Planning Organization. What does it do? Nobody ever really knew. Its stated purpose had something to do with transportation but aside for reprinting wish-lists full of roads, they didn’t really do much. I’m not sure that they knew what they were there for either. Seriously though, the MPO is a federally required organization whose purpose is to prioritize and fight for regional transportation projects.

Regardless of what it was supposed to be doing for the past 18 years (1991 was when the Peninsula MPO and the Southside MPO merged in order to, get this, increase regional cooperation), it is going through some changes. These changes were mandated by the Federal Highway Administration. First, they will change their name from MPO to TPO, or Transportation Planning Organization, which is substantially less vague than MPO. Most of the other changes involve increasing transparency, which, until recently was as clear as mud. A few of these changes include a public comment period at the beginning of each meeting (which apparently never existed before), a freight hauler’s advisory committee and a citizen advisory committee.

To give an example of how weak our MPO has been in the past compared to other MPOs, the group Future of Hampton Roads released a few statistics. Apparently, in the most recent state budget cuts, Hampton Roads’ new construction budget fell 31% while Northern Virginia’s fell only 19%. Even more alarming is the fact that funding for interstate projects alone fell 72% in Hampton Roads and only 1% in Northern Virginia. Maybe the discrepancy is due to our superior quality roads here in Hampton Roads. Yeah right. The real reason Hampton Roads has such a large number of off-road, jacked-to-the-sky pickups and SUVs is so they can climb out of the potholes on I-64 on their way to work. The reason our funding fell so much is directly due to our weak regional institutions. Northern Virginia’s MPO has always had multiple members of the Legislature on the board. This way they can take concerns to the State first-hand with authority, unlike Hampton Roads, which has always sat by the front door crying to the Legislature crying to the members like an 8-year-old with a ridiculous Christmas List.

I am glad that we are finally making these changes. Hopefully Hampton Roads can pull out of our transportation cul-de-sac and take its rightful place as a leader in the State and the Nation.