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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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