Norfolk Tide Exceeds Ridership Estimates

October 14, 2011 16 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville takes a look at the South's newest light rail line that continues to exceed original ridership estimates: Norfolk's Tide

About The Tide LRT

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The Tide is a 7.4 mile starter Light Rail Transit (LRT) line in Norfolk, VA, connecting Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk State University and Downtown Norfolk.  Daily ridership in 2011 was projected at 2,900 passengers and the $318 million system is estimated to cost $6.2 million a year to operate.


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In November 1999, the City of Virginia Beach conducted a referendum regarding the construction and operation of light rail into Virginia Beach along the Norfolk Southern railroad right-of-way. The proposed route would connect downtown Norfolk to the Virginia Beach oceanfront. The referendum led to a community discussion of the proposed light rail and feeder bus system. Local media and many special interest groups debated the matter in great detail, using information provided by a DEIS (Draft Environmental Impact Statement). The voters of Virginia Beach rejected the proposed light rail system. The Virginia Beach City Council then passed a 10-year resolution declaring that the city would no longer have any future involvement in the proposed light rail line. Years later, a major economic and development hub has been built along the Norfolk Southern rail corridor, known as the Virginia Beach Town Center. The new Town Center, along with record high gas prices in 2008, has now stirred up a renewed public interest in light rail which can now easily connect to the current rail line being constructed in Norfolk. A new referendum on light rail will not necessarily be needed in Virginia Beach due to the 10-year expiration of the previous referendum.

Since then, the City of Virginia Beach agreed to purchase the portion of the former Norfolk & Southern Railway right-of-way within Virginia Beach from Norfolk Southern. This line extends from the Norfolk/Virginia Beach boundary (near the end of the light rail line in Norfolk), continuing almost due east through the Pembroke Town Center area to Birdneck Road, ending very near the Oceanfront area of the resort city. However, no firm plans (e.g. for LRT, Bus Rapid Transit, or other uses) have been announced for the purchased right-of-way. Public transit advocates generally like the move.

After Virginia Beach pulled out of a proposal that would have seen the construction of a light rail line connecting Downtown Norfolk with the Virginia Beach oceanfront in 1999, Norfolk began developing a network that would be constructed entirely within its city limits.

Beginning in 2000, HRT and federal transit officials worked to create a plan that would attract federal funding. On September 22, 2006, the Federal Transit Administration announced that the proposal met federal criteria for design, and would receive funding for a final design. On October 1, 2007, the FTA signed the agreement to appropriate $128 million for the construction of the network. The remainder of the project will be divided three ways, with the city of Norfolk contributing $33 million, the Commonwealth of Virginia contributing $31.9 million, and $39.2 million being contributed from other federal sources.

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Officials announced in June 2007 that the system would be called The Tide, a name that beat out other proposed names, including Bay Runner, First Rail, Dash, Bay Breeze, Sail and Shore Line.

The trains generally run every 15 minutes; they run every 10 minutes during peak periods and every 30 minutes during early weekend mornings and late evenings. Service will be from 6:00 a.m. through 10 p.m Monday-Thursday, 6:00 a.m. through midnight on Friday-Saturday, 7:00 a.m through 9:00 p.m. on Sundays, and 9:00 a.m. through 9:00 p.m. on Holidays.

On 21 June 2011, HRTs announced the line would open on 19 August initially with demonstration rides followed by regular service beginning on 22 August. Due to high ridership during the initial demonstration period, estimated at over 46,000 riders, the demonstration period was extended, with regular service to begin on 28 August.

On 21 September 2011, Hampton Roads Transit announced the introduction of online ticketing and onboard WiFi to The Tide.


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The line was primarily financed by a $232 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration approved in October 2007. Additional federal funding came from a $32.8 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The final cost of the project was estimated to be $318.5 million, $106 million over the original estimate. Nevertheless, according to Norfolk mayor Paul Fraim, at a per-mile cost of less than $27 million per kilometer, The Tide ended up as if "not the lowest on a per-mile basis of any light rail, [...] at the very bottom of the list."

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Rolling Stock

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In September 2007, HRT’s commission voted to purchase nine Siemens-built S70 vehicles, similar to those currently in operation for the LYNX Blue Line in Charlotte, North Carolina. These vehicles will form The Tide's initial fleet of light rail vehicles. The first car arrived on October 6, 2009.

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The Tide is designed with the hope that TOD (Transit-oriented development) will be constructed along the light rail line, creating a smart growth transit corridor to help guide growth using compact mixed-use development practices, as well as curbing traffic congestion.

Most of the Tide's route east of downtown Norfolk operates on newly-laid track along the former Norfolk & Southern Railway line that runs due east to the resort area of Virginia Beach. The Norfolk Southern Railway had previously abandoned that line. That right-of-way had carried both freight and passenger traffic until the end of World War II, and then operated as a freight-only railway for several additional decades. The current eastern end of The Tide is at Newtown Road, which is the Norfolk-Virginia Beach boundary line.

By contrast, The Tide's route from the Harbor Park area west within downtown Norfolk and north-west to the Medical Center area is entirely new right-of-way.

Image by norfolkdistrict at


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With a full calendar month of collecting fares, The Tide is averaging 5,056 daily weekday trips. Hampton Roads Transit projected that 2,900 trips would be taken each weekday the year the rail opens, and 7,130 daily rides by 2030.

Counting weekends (The Tide runs a shortened schedule on Sundays), average daily ridership has been nearly 4,870.

But will the big numbers hold?

Ridership on the newest light-rail systems in Phoenix; Charlotte, N.C.; Houston; and Seattle grew after launching. Phoenix Metro started with daily weekday ridership in the low 30,000s and two years later was in the low 40,000s.

"Our original assumption was that, at some point, we'd level out to what our normal ridership should be, but instead we continue to see growth," said Hillary Foose, a Metro spokeswoman.

Charlotte's LYNX went from 11,500 boardings a day to 15,300 in its first year. Houston's ridership doubled the first year and now is posting 36,000 daily trips, triple 2004's opening months. Seattle's system has grown from 15,000 daily trips to 25,000 in two years.

Transit Oriented Development (TOD): Before & After

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Norfolk joins the list of cities economically separating themselves from Jacksonville by investing in fixed transit to spur job creation and long term sustainable economic development.  The following aerials below show various locations along the new light rail line where infill TOD has occurred while the transit line was under construction.

2007 on the left.  2011 on the right.

2007 on the left.  2011 on the right.


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The Commonwealth of Virginia's Department of Rail & Public Transportation is studying possible extensions to The Tide in several different directions within the multi-city Hampton Roads area.

Hampton Roads Transit, the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization, and local cities are exploring extensions of the starter line. Possible extensions might run north to the Norfolk Naval Base, east to the Virginia Beach oceanfront and resort area, west to Portsmouth, and south to Chesapeake.