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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Norfolk, Va., extends light rail construction hours

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The city of Norfolk, Va., is extending light rail construction hours to try to prevent future delays with the project. Right now crews primarily work from 7 a.m. until 4 or 5 p.m., according to Public Works Director John Keifer. The new agreement would allow them to work until 2 am.

"The primary thing on the project is just to get it done as quickly as we can," explained Keifer.

Representatives from the city and Hampton Roads Transit discussed the plans with people who live in the Freemason section of Norfolk Jan 25. Keifer promised crews would not do any of the loud construction work after 10 p.m., but he could not say which activities would be prohibited.

"We know they can't jackhammer after 10 p.m. and we talked about some other activities, but we don't have specifics yet," said Keifer. "That's something we'll have to work out with the contractor." 

The city says light rail construction downtown is 50-60 percent complete. They expect it to be finished this summer.

Sin a related story, by this time next year, the city of Virginia Beach, Va., should know whether light rail will be extended to the Oceanfront, local media report. The city has commissioned a 12-month environmental impact study to look at four alternatives to a transit system in Virginia Beach, one of which is to do nothing. The other alternatives include implementing a transportation management system, implementing a bus rapid transit system or extending light rail from Norfolk to Virginia Beach.

These and other issues were in City Councilman Jim Wood's presentation at a luncheon of the Hampton Roads Commercial Real Estate Women organization Jan. 19. Wood is also chairman of the Transportation District Commission of Hampton Roads, the governing body of Hampton Roads Transit.

Wood was asked to brief the group on light rail, including the cost overruns, which resulted in a shake-up of upper management and the retirement of Hampton Roads Transit's president and CEO, Michael Townes. Wood said light rail has to be viewed from a regional perspective, not just from a parochial perspective.

City and regional officials envision light rail ferrying passengers to Virginia Beach and then ferrying workers from Virginia Beach to Naval Station Norfolk. Also in the planning stages: a higher-speed rail service between Richmond and Newport News or between Richmond and Norfolk.

"If you don't have something like this, we are going to have more traffic problems," Wood said. "This is smart growth, smart thinking. We are looking forward to the day when people can ride the Tide to see the Tides.

"Most operations will be subsidized," Wood said. "There's no transit system in the world that pays for itself. That's important to realize.

Wood said light rail is a cheaper alternative to constructing highways. He said a mile of track costs $40 million to construct. By contrast, he said a mile of highway costs $100 million to construct. Wood said $1 invested in public transportation generates $4 to $9 in local activity.

The figures were taken from the American Public Transportation Association, a trade group representing public transportation. Wood also cited figures showing that property values close to public transportation rise on average 7 percent. He cited other figures from San Jose, Calif., and Portland, Ore., where property values rose 23 percent and 11 percent respectively.

It is clear from his presentation that a light rail extension to Virginia Beach will spur development. Virginia Beach has identified 13 strategic growth areas, half of which are clustered around Norfolk Southern's rail line, Wood said. These areas have been identified in the city's comprehensive plan as growth areas. This is known as transit-oriented development by planners and policy-makers. Build public transit and stations, and development will follow, the thinking goes.

Wood addressed the costs of the project. He said the original cost was $232 million. The federal government would fund 50 percent of the costs while the state and Norfolk would shoulder the other 50 percent.

"Anything over that amount is the responsibility of Norfolk," Wood said.

He said the cost was estimated to be between $325 million and $340 million in December, though he admitted that he didn't know the exact cost overrun. He said the soft costs - legal, real estate, etc. - are responsible for the higher-than-expected costs. Soft costs account for 30 percent of the total costs of projects, Wood said, though the soft costs for the light-rail project are 50 percent and rising.

Burned by the publicity of the higher-than-expected costs, Hampton Roads Transit and the city of Norfolk will conduct an internal audit of the project, Wood said. He also said new management would be in place Feb. 1.

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