Friday, June 20, 2008

We NEED a light rail system badly

The Hampton Roads (aka Hampton Traffic Jams) area has suffered degrading traffic conditions for years and years. This year the top Navy commander over Naval Station Norfolk (that's Norfolk Naval Base to some of you) made an announcement to the press that it was of enough concern that he felt it was a threat to military capability to defend the area. That's so obvious that it's not even "news" here, but hopefully someone elsewhere will do something.

Every year it's the same thing: The state of Virginia and the various cities squabble over what to do and who will pay for it. Then they try to find a creative way to put the costs back on the constituents and that's when it falls apart. Granted, those that use the roads should pay to improve them. That's fair. Tolls won't work though because you can't solve a backup problem by putting in choke points and the best figures show that Pay-Pass devices are purchased by a small minority of travelers, and being in a tourist area only pushes that percentage even lower.

So what do they all do? Nothing. Absolutely NOTHING. The commute from the peninsula (Hampton, Newport News) to the "southside" (Norfolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach) on a typical Friday between 3:00 and 6:00 pm is 2 hours. Yes. Two Hours. With zero traffic it would normally take 30 minutes at 65 mph. I've verified these numbers myself repeatedly.

I said "they" do "nothing" but actually "they" did try something: new bus routes. My immediate thought was "wow, new bus routes would be an option to consider". That was until I watched those same buses sitting in the slowest (right) lane, buried in traffic, as I moved past in my truck. Thinking what sense does this make? The fare is not much cheaper when you calculate the cost of gas per distance per day, but it does add up. However, there's the comfort and reliability factor. I can see why those buses are typically empty.

This same set of issues hampers HOV usage as well, but with HOV there's another aspect: population dispersion. Nobody works or lives in common areas here. It's very spread out. In most places if you live in one city and work in another, there's some common pathways being used that lend themselves to natural car pooling. Not here. It's a real many-to-many relationship mapping that results in HOV lanes having one car per hour running down the lonely HOV expressway.

We need a rail system!

The rails exist. Many are no longer used. Most are already for sale or at least open for offers of sale. Nobody is offering. If someone really wanted to make it work, they could. Maybe this constant gas price torturing will prompt someone to break the log jam and get something working. Norfolk is taking a solo stab at it, but their plan is a real crack-smoking mess. Then Virginia Beach has stepped up to say they want to purchase the rights to the extension of the same track Norfolk purchased and extend the system to the oceanfront resort area. That would connect downtown Norfolk to the beach front of Virginia Beach, an east-west straight line. Those plans are bogged down with constant revisions and changes of direction. I'll be shocked if they start breaking ground within 10 years on this.

What's even more painful to realize is that if you study the rail lines, you'll find that so many extensions branch off either directly into, or very close to, many areas with either housing, apartments, employment facilities or military facilities. This would really alleviate traffic and I would be among many that wouldn't hesitate to use such a system to go to work, school, the beach, baseball games, parks, whatever. I'm just frustrated by the lack of effort.
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