Tag Archives: Norfolk

A Reporter Rode Denver’s Airport Light Rail–And You Won’t Believe What Happened Next

Here’s a heartwarming story of a man who rode Denver’s airport light rail once, and it worked for him, so now he wants everyone in his Virginia city to pay higher taxes to build light rail to the local airport in case he might want to ride it again someday. How thoughtful and touching.

Of course, there are a few problems with his story. First, what he rode wasn’t light rail, which averages about 20 miles per hour; instead, he rode a commuter train that averages 38 miles per hour. So if he manages to persuade people in Virginia to build light rail to his local airport, he will get something far inferior to what he rode in Denver.

Second, the writer is guilty of survivorship bias, which is an assumption that because something worked for him, it will work for everyone else. But the Denver airport train doesn’t work for everyone else, partly because it is unreliable and partly because transit is slow for anyone who isn’t near an airport line station. Continue reading


No One’s Riding Light Rail, So Reduce Fares and Build More

Planners predicted that Norfolk’s Tide light-rail line, which opened in 2011 60 percent over budget and 16 months behind schedule, would stimulate economic development along its route. But little development is taking place, so the Virginian Pilot has come up with a grand idea: reduce fares by two thirds. That, the paper’s editorial writers guesstimate, should attract 1,000 more riders per day, which they hope will generate the development planners promised.

Looks fast, but the schedule indicates it takes 26 minutes to go 7 miles for an average speed of 16 mph.

There are a lot of problems with this proposal, not least of which is the fact that rail fares in Norfolk are already the second-lowest in the country, after Houston’s. Though the nominal fare is $1.50, which the Pilot proposes to cut to 50 cents, actual fares collected in 2012 averaged just 50 cents a ride, compared with 35 cents in Houston but $1.39 in Denver. The national average for low-capacity rail is 98 cents, while the average Hampton Roads bus rider pays 91 cents.

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Cry Me a Tide

Norfolk opened its “Tide” low-capacity rail (formerly light rail) in September, 2011, a mere 16 months behind schedule and 60 percent over the original projected cost. Now, Hampton Roads Transit–the agency that serves Norfolk-Newport News-Virginia Beach–says that the line will cost a lot more to run that it expected, so it will have to raise fares for both rail and bus riders.

Opening day for “the Tide.” Flickr photo by Virginia Department of Transportation.

Actually, they knew it was going to cost a lot to run, but they used federal funds to subsidize operations for the first couple of years. Since fares cover only 14 percent of operating costs (and zero percent of maintenance costs), the transit agency is hoping Norfolk, the state, or anyone else will come up with some of the difference. When the region was deciding whether or not to build the rail line, did the agency tell the public that building rail meant raising fares? Probably not.

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Norfolk Light Rail Scandal

When the light-rail line in Norfolk, Virginia, went nearly 50 percent over its projected cost, the general manager of Hampton Roads Transit resigned in disgrace–but they gave him $300,000 in severance pay. Now documents have come to light that agency officials knew the line was going to cost more than their published projections but kept the true cost secret from the public and the Federal Transit Administration when they were seeking funding for the project.

Norfolk light rail under construction.
Flickr photo by DearEdward.

On top of that, the state has found that the transit agency broke contracting and bidding laws when it gave contracts to favored consultants and “preferred individuals”–no doubt ones who would low-ball the cost estimates and not reveal the true costs until construction was well underway. The transit agency’s current CEO is talking about bringing criminal charges against the now-departed officials who were in charge when the line was being planned.

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