The Great Train Robbery

Is anybody getting sick of the Facebook “My Memories” feature yet?  If not, I am going to share the following from my Facebook page via February 2010. This is not any sort of self-promotion or ‘I told you so.’ The following, unfortunately, were my thoughts and my thoughts alone.

“I grew up in Virginia Beach. I use to love running through the woods behind Redmill and Oceana and biking the trails; then came more subdivisions and the woods were gone. I used to enjoy weaving through curves on Great Neck and London Bridge Road when they were 2 lane highways; watching the corn grow tall in the spring until it created a maze of green and asphalt in the summer. I grew up with this city and things are changing; yet some people don’t seem to realize the change. The city has almost doubled the residents since the 1980’s – we are the largest city in Virginia and have the potential for so much more. Yet some folks think we are still in the ‘cornfield’ days. Some don’t want the potential of what we could be. We need better public transportation, and light rail is the start. However, people continue to hold on to the past and argue over regional development. This is why we are the most populated metro area in the country without a professional sports team, a viable rail transit system and only host 3 fortune 500 companies. The cornfield days are over.” – Dylan Lloyd, Feb 2010

Time and understanding are the great equalizer. Whereas politicians flip flop and change with the prevailing political winds as to their benefit, we as citizens can take in new information, digest that information, and make better decisions. Currently, after digesting the information available to me, I oppose the light rail extension in Virginia Beach.

Life in Virginia Beach is one housing boom away from pricing out most of its citizens. Taxes we pay to eat out are 3rd highest in the country and the city solid waste fee is set to see another hike. Property taxes were raised last summer to 0.99 cents on every $100 of house you own. Be it we still live in a system where government can charge you annually for something that is supposedly yours, but that’s neither here nor there, as government bullies have skyline dreams and railway schemes to put this city (and by extension their resumes) on the proverbial map.

First off the HRT Wave, which is the cutesy name for our billion dollar amusement park tram ride, has the worst transit ridership costs of any public rail system in the country. According to the Brookings Institute, it loses exactly $6.63 per rider. In other words when it provides 4000 round trips daily, it costs tax payers $26,520 a day. Supposedly expanding the system will reduce these shortfalls in the long term as per the city council’s Field of Dreams philosophy.

Secondly the cost is not worth the benefit. The light rail adventure in Norfolk ran 51% over the original cost estimate. When city officials here tell us it will be $300 million for a measly 2.5 miles of track, which is $350 per person even with state matched funds, how are we to believe this is even close to the final price? How long before the city starts pushing to extend this rail; as they are already on the hook for $20 million in right-of-way fees if they don’t. What will costs be then? Even if congestion costs in the area are $9.7 million per year, it would take 36 years to recoup the construction costs alone. Rail systems typically have a lifespan of 30-40 years and the maintenance costs tend to be almost as great as the original construction itself.

Speaking of congestion, does anyone think that light rail in any form will reduce it? The answer, simply, is no. Even experts say the tide will have little, if any effect on traffic. As a matter of fact, most light rail projects increase population and urban density by enticing developers to build trip generators. Property values rise around rail stations as ‘transit villages’ (aka yuppie enclaves) replace lower class neighborhoods and industrial areas. If anything it further displaces the poor and has very little impact on air quality to boot as helping the poor and the environment is often a cause celebre of transit planners.

Finally, the rail extension as designed will only serve a fraction of the population and will equate to Beach residents subsidizing Norfolk.  The geographical center of Virginia Beach’s population is 3 miles to the southeast of our faux downtown shopping complex.  The rail will actually create more traffic as only 1% of the population lives within walking distance of the platform dubbed “Union Station” and more people will have to drive to the newly created urban trip generators.

According to a city official who asked not to be named, they want to build a ‘Taj Mahal’ like terminal at Town Center. Having already spent nearly $1 million on a study to find out what most people already knew, city officials are now renting a nice shiny office for $68,000 a year and furnishing it with desks and tech equipment to the tune of $250,000. I suppose neither the 6,000+ square feet of office space at the planning department nor the 2,000 square feet they have on the 11th floor of the posh Armada Hoffler building was enough.

Looking at the city’s website Light Rail is around 48% of the 6 year road budget. The last $164 million covers the 49 other road projects the city is planning.  The next largest road project is Centerville Turnpike-Phase II costing $18 million for the construction of a four-lane divided highway from Indian River Road to Kempsville Road, a distance of 1.85 miles.  Now bear in mind VDOT construction improvements on I-264 between I-64 and Witchduck Road are set to begin in November.  This will push more traffic onto already clogged arterials such as Indian River Road.

The light rail money would be better suited to improve the corridor of Indian River Road between I-64 and Kempsville – and here’s my pitch. Virginia Beach has been giving a lot of attention to an area of Princess Anne Road south of Independence.  Within 2 miles of roadway there is now a hospital, a sportsplex, an amphitheater, a community college, an adult education center, the city’s signature golf course, a farmers market and a huge shopping center smack dab in the middle. If the city was to improve Indian River Road from the interstate to Ferrell Parkway similar to what the City of Chesapeake did for Dominion Blvd, it would provide a crucial link to all these facilities which are strangely located 7 miles from the closest freeway.

That is $159.8 million of a $366 million budget for a few miles of track for a net increase of 1300 daily round trips by 2034; that is in lieu of investing that money in roads that serve 450,000 residents every day. This will ultimately result in citizens of Virginia Beach subsidizing Norfolk’s mistake; a bailout, if you will. As in the “Marge vs. the Monorail” episode from The Simpsons, one major selling point of rail transit seems to be that the cities need to keep up with their peers in a totally artificial competition to be a “world-class city,” regardless of what the costs or desires of longtime residents.