Another LRT Exceeds Minimalist Expectations

Norfolk Virginia finally opened its light-rail line, and ridership “exceeds expectations” at 5,600 riders a day. Considering they run 212 trains a weekday, that’s just over 26 passengers per train. How many 40-passenger buses would have been needed to handle all that traffic?

Of course, the rail line exceeded expectations in many other ways as well. The 7.4-mile line was originally expected to cost less than $200 million. The final cost was at least $120 million over that. It was also supposed to be open for business in 2008. They exceeded that expectation as well. The original projection was for 10,500 weekday riders by 2021. They’ll have to double ridership to meet that. A lot of city and transit officials also expected the rail line would be a feather in their caps. Instead, they were lucky not to be tarred and feathered when they were run out of town over cost overruns.

Despite the underestimated costs and inflated ridership numbers, the Federal Transit Administration gave Norfolk light rail a “not recommended” rating in 2004. Too bad the agency changed its mind (or had its mind changed for it by Virginia’s congressional delegation). They could have saved taxpayers a lot of money on a truly wasteful project. But that’s the story of all light rail in a nutshell.

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15 thoughts on “Another LRT Exceeds Minimalist Expectations

  1. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    Of course, the rail line exceeded expectations in many other ways as well. The 7.4-mile line was originally expected to cost less than $200 million. The final cost was at least $120 million over that. It was also supposed to be open for business in 2008. They exceeded that expectation as well. The original projection was for 10,500 weekday riders by 2021. They’ll have to double ridership to meet that. A lot of city and transit officials also expected the rail line would be a feather in their caps. Instead, they were lucky not to be tarred and feathered when they were run out of town over cost overruns.

    Added background on the Tide (as this light rail line is called).

    It was originally supposed to run far beyond its current eastern terminus, near the City of Norfolk/City of Virginia Beach border, all the way east to the Virginia Beach Convention Center and then to Oceanfront Virginia Beach.

    In spite of being called a city, Virginia Beach is profoundly suburban in nature (most of what is now Virginia Beach was once Princess Anne County, but merged with the old Town of Virginia Beach to become the present-day City of Virginia Beach in order to prevent parts of Princess Anne County from being annexed into the City of Norfolk (in Virginia, cities are essentially county entities, as they are not part of any county, and a city can annex land from an adjoining county, but a city may not annex land from an adjoining city)).

    Getting back to light rail, a voter referendum was held in Virginia Beach in 1999 in which the pro-light-rail side lost, and at the time, all light rail planning work in Virginia Beach was stopped (it was apparently later re-started, but is now on hold again). As a result, the Tide light rail line terminates just west of the border between Norfolk and Virginia Brach.

  2. Close Observer

    Norfolk Quarterly Magazine in 2008 projected ridership up to 12,000 daily riders and didn’t add “by 2030.” The point is the general perception of the people living in the region is that there would be lots of riders from Day One. That’s how it was pitched to them.

    Then they drew down their estimates over time so that now, in 2011, 5,400 riders in a metropolitan region of nearly a quarter-million is deemed a smashing success. What a fraud!

  3. LazyReader

    “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results”. The line was primarily financed by a $232 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration. Additional federal funding came from a $32.8 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Stimulus). Nevertheless, according to Norfolk mayor Paul Fraim, at a per-mile cost of less than 27 million dollars per kilometer (43 million per mile), The Tide ended up as if “not the lowest on a per-mile basis of any light rail according to him. Which leads me to think…………..There were more expensive lines?!?!?

  4. bennett

    LazyReader asks: “There were more expensive lines?!?!?”

    Good question. I’m no engineer, but the costs of these LRT lines defies logic to me. The materials are not rare, the engineering not that sophisticated, signalling technology is not overly advanced, a construction crew cost only so much per day.

    Not only does the initial price seem high for these projects, but the fact that almost all of them break the budget astounds me. Is it securing the right of way, the cost of the transit vehicles, adhering to FTA regs, Admin (god I hope it’s not admin)? Why is LRT so damn expensive? It doesn’t seem like it should cost that much.

  5. Sandy Teal

    This light rail fad seems to be a lot like the conference center fad of the last few decades, where towns and cities would build a bigger-than-needed conference center so that they allegedly could attract/steal conference business from neighboring towns.

  6. MJ

    Then they drew down their estimates over time so that now, in 2011, 5,400 riders in a metropolitan region of nearly a quarter-million is deemed a smashing success. What a fraud!

    The City of Norfolk itself has about 250,000 people. The greater Hampton Roads (or Tidewater) region has over 1.6 million people.

  7. C. P. Zilliacus

    bennett wrote:

    Not only does the initial price seem high for these projects, but the fact that almost all of them break the budget astounds me. Is it securing the right of way, the cost of the transit vehicles, adhering to FTA regs, Admin (god I hope it’s not admin)? Why is LRT so damn expensive? It doesn’t seem like it should cost that much.

    Not just LRT. Heavy rail projects (at least in the U.S.) seem to have enormous construction cost overruns as well. Consider the Dulles Rail extension (also entirely in the Commonwealth of Virginia) of the Washington Metrorail system as recently discussed on the excellent Bacon’s Rebellion site:

    Dulles Rail Controversy Jumps the Track to RoVa

    The Dulles Rail Financial Disaster Continues

  8. LazyReader

    Precisely the Dulles rails was what….The line will be 23 miles (37 km) long and is estimated to cost up to 6.8 billion dollars. That’s 295 million per mile. Originally financing the project called for a 50-cent toll increase on the Dulles Toll Road to finance the Silver Line. Never mind the fact the Silver Line will also use the same tracks as the Orange and Blue lines. Since Orange and Blue trains are already filled to capacity during rush hour, some patrons will be turned away. So for every rush-hour traveler gained on the Silver line, MetroRail will lose at least one rush-hour traveler on the Orange or Blue lines (possibly more if the Silver line trains are not as full during rush hours). Metro can’t afford to maintain the system it has today and it’s is falling apart.

  9. Andrew

    And many comments later, nobody has bothered to note that there are actually just 150 LRT rrains per day, which is 37 passengers per train depaeture. What’s a 40% error among friends when it supports preconceived prejudices?

  10. Andrew

    On costs since many have asked …

    Tracks, signals, power, and overhead catenary are about $10 million per mile to construct for a double track line.

    The rest of the costs re stations, bridges, right of way, grading, retaining walls, vehicles, maintenace facilities, insurance, bonding, contractor profit, etc. And of course about 20-30% for professional services like engineering, construction management, surveying, contract administration, testing and comissioning, etc.

    This is no different than a highway job. Highway pavement costs a few million per mile per lane couplet. But there are ZERO expressways built with six lanes that come in at a cost of $10 million per mile.

  11. Streetcarsuburb

    I wish the antiplanner would be honest at least once,

    “26 passenengers per train” tells us nothing. What about the peak periods? Are these trains full during the peak hours? The antiplanner suggests that buses would have been better; however, would the buses have been stuck in traffic, whereas the trains might not have been?

    There are too many unanswered questions.

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