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VA ‘Tide’ warning: Don’t get on the wrong track

By   /   November 29, 2013  /   News  /   No Comments

ALL’S QUIET: A Tide train doesn’t draw a crowd at a stop in Norfolk. Ridership, which has flat-lined, is the lowest in the country, according to one report.

PRIME DIRECTIVE: Incoming state Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne wants to get more cars off Virginia's roads.

PRIME DIRECTIVE: Incoming state Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne wants to get more cars off Virginia’s roads.

By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Terry McAuliffe says he likes public-transit projects. Naturally, the governor-elect’s transportation secretary does, too.

“We must do what we can to get cars off the road by investing in passenger rail and light rail,” Aubrey Layne declared last week.

Extending “The Tide,” Norfolk’s lightly traveled light-rail line to Virginia Beach is a priority for Layne, a real-estate developer who represents Hampton Roads on the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

Skeptics warn that such commuter lines won’t go far, even with outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell’s multibillion-dollar transportation package in hand.

“The massive investments required for rail transit usually serve a small share of the people in an urban area,” says Randal O’Toole, a transportation analyst for the free-market Cato Institute.

“Spending huge amounts of money on a narrow segment often leads to significant declines in the region’s transportation network,” he says.

Examining light-rail systems across the country, O’Toole finds they invariably:

  • Underperform ridership estimates and overspend their budgets.
  • Cost more than bus lines.
  • Fail to stimulate the economy.
  • Place added stress on existing transportation networks.

Calling light rail a form of “transit apartheid,” O’Toole says, “The financial stresses created by the high cost of rail often lead transit agencies to raise fares and cut bus service, thus harming low-income families.”

Right on time, the Hampton Roads transit commission is recommending a 33 percent fare increase on Norfolk’s bus routes and The Tide.

After three years in operation, use of the 7.4-mile rail system has flat-lined at a modest weekly average of barely 5,000 riders.

According to data from the American Public Transportation Association, The Tide carries the lowest number of riders per mile of any light-rail system in the nation.

GO SLOW: Randal O’Toole says light-rall projects typically over-promise and under-deliver, while degrading existing transit networks.

O’Toole finds “many transit agencies that build new rail lines quickly demonstrate a level of incompetence they did not display when running only buses.”

That scenario played out in Norfolk, where the general manager of the transit agency resigned over operation of the rail system.

Even well-established and seemingly well-run systems like Washington D.C.’s Metro run into trouble.

Citing years of neglected repairs on the system, the Washington Post reports that Metro is experiencing more breakdowns and delays. When an aging train-location sensor failed in 2009, nine passengers were killed in a Red Line collision.

A $5 billion upgrade to the Red Line is under way, and officials say it will lead to further rider delays over the next three to four years. The $5 billion won’t touch Metro’s Yellow, Blue and Orange lines.

Layne and McAuliffe talk up The Tide extension as an economic driver in southeastern Virginia, but critics say commonwealth taxpayers should be leery of a system that depends on hefty taxpayer subsidies.

The original line cost $318.5 million to build — $106 million over budget — or $43 million per mile.

“Budget overruns are only a symptom of a problem,” O’Toole told Watchdog.org.

Lest Richmond fall in line for more “mass transit,” the Cato expert cautions:

“In order to sell it, (proponents) start by low-balling the costs. Even if the original cost projections had been accurate, it would not make sense to build light rail.”

Layne says he has no “litmus test” for green-lighting transit projects. He acknowledges the way forward is “not going to be easy.”

But he added, “Passage of legislation to put new money into transportation for the first time in nearly three decades means the next transportation secretary will have more flexibility than his predecessors.”

Kenric Ward is chief of Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau. Contact him at [email protected] or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward


Kenric Ward was a former San Antonio-based reporter for Watchdog.org.