By: Jon Cawley; DailyPress.com
Norfolk’s new Amtrak passenger service is on track to launch by the end of the year, the city’s mayor said Friday.
The line will connect South Hampton Roads with Petersburg and provide a new link to the Northeast. It’s one of several examples of how rail-related transit is poised to change the state’s transportation landscape, according to public transportation officials.
Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim, speaking at an annual conference on light rail, noted that 100,000 people drive into Norfolk each day to work and 30,000 commute from the city to surrounding localities. At the same time, Norfolk’s new light rail line is averaging about 4,800 daily riders — well over early projections.
“The economy depends on a good transportation network,” Mayor Paul Fraim said.
The conference, the 16th annual meeting of the advocacy group Virginians for High Speed Rail, drew about 250 people. Fraim provided introductory remarks. A panel discussion included Thelma Drake, executive director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation; new Hampton Roads Transit CEO William E. Harrell; and Brigid Hynes-Cherin, a Federal Transit Administration regional administrator.
Drake reminded the crowd that “transportation is a system, not just roads. We have to give people choices.” She said that point becomes even more important as the state’s population is expected to grow 30 percent by 2035.
Drake said she expects the Norfolk passenger rail service to be profitable from the beginning. As an Amtrak subsidy for Virginia passenger rail is reduced and the state moves to take over funding, Drake said, a dedicated revenue stream is needed in coming years for future growth.
“We have no intention of shutting down any train service running today,” she said, adding that a high speed rail line from Raleigh, N.C., to Richmond could be ready for construction in about a year if money is available. “Hampton Roads is working on a high speed vision plan” to include separated tracks and higher train speeds, she said.
Drake said a plan is in the works to toll Interstate 95 from Fredericksburg to North Carolina with proceeds earmarked for rail-based transportation.
During a technical overview of the federal transit project approval process, Hynes-Cherin said the ridership numbers for Norfolk’s light rail line The Tide are “fantastic” and “we’re glad to have invested in that.”
Harrell said the challenge ahead involves expanding the starter line into a regional network.
“We want to expand mobility. The goal is not just to move vehicles, the goal is to move people,” he said, adding of a ridership survey: “We’re seeing a very different rider than standard transit. They are upper middle class — a lot of Virginia Beach riders commuting. The ridership has blown all of us away.”
He said a discount fare program for companies and educational institutions has been so successful that new deals will now have to be negotiated. “We’re losing some money on that,” Harrell said.
Harrell said the Virginia Beach City Council‘s decision to put a light rail referendum on the ballot in November was “a courageous act” since a similar vote failed in 1999. “There is a good possibility there may be a positive vote” this time around, he said.
A stalled feasibility study is expected to be restarted later this year once HRT has a full year of ridership figures. Harrell said expanding the Tide 12 miles to the oceanfront could cost $800 million.
-year’s to maintain the regional rail service it has as the federal government prepares to shift responsibility for those train lines to the state next year with a reduced subsidy.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on, but we still don’t have near enough money dedicated to this thing to open it up,” said state Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, who pushed successfully for an additional $28 million in state funds for rail in the next budget.
Federal transit officials say local governments also will have to step up with funding.
“There’s not enough money at the federal or state levels to fund these projects,” said Brigid Hynes-Cherin, regional administrator at the Federal Transit Administration. “We’ll have to get funding at the local level as well.”
That won’t be easy in a time of strained local budgets and looming cutbacks in federal spending in a state that depends heavily on it, Harrell said. “You have to recognize that everything can’t be done at once.”
Some local government officials say they often opt to build roads rather than transit because of the operating costs for rail, bus and other alternatives to highways, but Hynes-Cherin said the public doesn’t know the true comparison.
“Nobody thinks there are any costs to operating these highways — it’s just done,” she said, “but it’s in all of your budgets.”