Can Light Rail Unite Two Va. Cities?

Virginia Beach voted against the building of a light rail years ago. Now that it’s up and running in nearby Norfolk, Va., some think beach-dwellers may rethink their decision.
October 2011
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing

One day in August, a line of people waiting in the hot sun stretched down Newtown Road. They were waiting to ride Norfolk’s new light rail line, called The Tide, which had just opened. Hampton Roads Transit, the regional public authority, was waiving the $1.50 fare that first weekend, and an unexpectedly large number of people took them up on the offer. By the time the weekend was over, more than 75,000 would ride one of the eight trains that run on the short 7.4-mile line from the city’s border with Virginia Beach to its downtown.

For these people waiting and for the region as a whole, the opening was a conclusion of sorts to a much longer wait -- for more than 20 years, Norfolk had been championing efforts to build a light rail line along some underused freight tracks between its downtown and the resort center of Virginia Beach.

Yet Norfolk’s younger suburban neighbor was divided over whether to build the line. In 1989, when I was a reporter for The Virginian-Pilot, I covered the meeting in which the Virginia Beach City Council voted 6-5 not to proceed with the project. After others came out against it, including a negative referendum in 1999, Norfolk opted to go it alone, building a small line within its borders rather than the full 17-mile line to the oceanfront in Virginia Beach. Construction began in 2008.

Now, after a series of cost overruns, the $318 million line was opening, and, at least this weekend, all problems were forgotten. The shiny two-level cars built by Siemens were smooth and comfortable. Crowds good-naturedly jammed the trains and stared out of the oversized windows as the train passed by the city’s Triple-A ballpark, Norfolk State University and the city-backed MacArthur Center mall.

“It’s about time,” says Greg Postlewait, a Virginia Beach resident and software developer in shorts and a T-shirt, who stood in the aisle of the train. “I hope it does well so they extend it. Seems like a no-brainer.”

Others had the same thought. If the line does well, Virginia Beach voters could approve an extension in another referendum. The Federal Transit Administration would also be likelier to approve funds for it as well. That’s the sentiment of Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms, a project supporter.

“I sincerely want The Tide to be really successful,” says Sessoms, who voted for the project back in 1989 when he was a councilman. “I hope the momentum and enthusiasm continues. If it does it will certainly make it easier to bring [light rail] to Virginia Beach.”

A lot has changed since 1989. Former longtime mayor and light rail opponent Meyera Oberndorf, a populist suburban cheerleader, is gone, defeated by Sessoms in 2006. Moreover, the urban tide has grown stronger, even in ultra suburban cities like Virginia Beach, which now has more people -- 437,000 -- than Norfolk’s population of 242,000.

As a result, many light rail advocates, as well as the federal government, agree that extending the line 4 miles into Virginia Beach makes sense. Still, battles remain between Norfolk and Virginia Beach, a city founded in large part in opposition to Norfolk.

Before it was founded in 1963, the name “Virginia Beach” referred only to a tiny resort town that got its start in the 1900s -- ironically on a new railroad line from Norfolk. But in a successful attempt to ward off annexation by Norfolk, the tourist town merged with the largely rural county of Princess Anne and became the “city” of Virginia Beach. I use quotation marks here because Virginia Beach, despite its population size, is still really a giant county, taking in miles and miles of both suburbs and rural farmland stretching down to the North Carolina state line.

Race was at the center of the 1963 incorporation. Largely white county residents did not want to be a part of Norfolk’s racial struggles, including ongoing battles over the court-ordered integration of its schools. Today, Virginia Beach is about 20 percent African American, and includes well-integrated middle-class subdivisions. Norfolk is more than 40 percent black. Race is still a factor in these Southern cities, although less than it used to be.

The lesson for other cities in watching this evolving story is that history matters. The physical lines of roads and trains inevitably reflect political lines. One reason New York City’s current subway system is so extensive is in large part because Brooklyn and New York voted for unification in 1898, making funding and construction of a joint subway system easier through the formerly separate cities. Decisions we make today can free or bind us later.

As transportation projects go, a 7-mile light rail line is a relatively small one. But in ways psychic and cultural, this is big. Let’s see where it goes.