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The Source for Public Transportation News and Analysis November 2, 2012
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Hampton Roads Transit’s The Tide: The Little Light Rail Line That Could—and Did
Special to Passenger Transport
When Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) in Norfolk, VA, opened The Tide, Virginia’s first light rail system, at 6 a.m. on Aug. 19, 2011, the only crowds present at the Newtown Road terminus were employees, politicians, demonstrators, and media. Hanging heavy in the air was a central question: would the projections of 2,900 daily riders prove true, or would light rail be an embarrassment?
The answer came quickly. The citizens of Hampton Roads arrived 70,000 strong that first weekend. Demand was so high that HRT decided to extend the complementary period from three days to a full week.
Even after the initial excitement, Tide ridership has remained strong and continued to grow throughout the first year of operations, from 4,000 to 6,000 daily riders. 
The light rail project in Norfolk—the smallest city to receive a federal Full Funding Grant Agreement for light rail—was not without its challenges. The 7.4-mile starter line links a medical complex near downtown Norfolk with a community college, a AAA baseball park, a shopping district and neighborhoods on the city’s west side. Few public infrastructure projects brought as much anticipation and promise to the seaside communities.
However, the project suffered from numerous delays and cost overruns, and public confidence was not high that HRT could manage such an important project or operate it efficiently. Could this small agency that had never built anything more complex than an administration building rise to the challenges of launching light rail in an old, urban city?
During the height of the turmoil, HRT was also in the process of remaking itself. This reorganization process eliminated layers of inefficient management from the project and gave responsibility to key individuals for clearly defined outcomes with firm deadlines.
In early May 2011, the agency’s chief executive officer presented the staff with a list of critical assignments, directing them either to complete the projects by Aug. 1 or not to bother showing up for work on Aug. 2. He made clear that failure to achieve the desired outcomes was unacceptable.
HRT senior management monitored and reviewed their progress daily and shifted resources as needed, completing key assignments one by one until none remained on the list. In mid-July, contracts were closing out, systems integration testing was wrapping up, safety and security certifications were on track, and pre-revenue operational testing was moving at full speed.
“The last 90 days of the project were among the best I had ever experienced in my professional career,” said Jim Price, HRT’s chief transit officer.
Staff confidence was very high the morning of Aug. 19. The trains ran on time and safely, and rail operations personnel were properly equipped, well trained, and motivated to succeed.
When the crowds started arrive by the thousands, HRT stood ready and able. The entire agency workforce participated that day: employees and citizen volunteers, dressed in red T-shirts and called Tide Guides, helped people navigate the new system.
The huge opening-day turnout resulted in long lines at stations. Trains arrived on time and left packed. The first public hurdle facing agency employees was simply counseling patience to the many people who stood in long lines to ride The Tide. Workers found themselves distributing bottled water to keep customers cool as temperatures soared into the humid 90s. This little touch was greatly appreciated by the public.
During its first year of operation, The Tide has demonstrated its value to the region. The light rail line has consistently provided better than 98 percent on-time performance, exceeded average daily ridership projections, and carried tens of thousands of people to special events such as the 2011 Grand Illumination Parade and 2012 OpSail Festival, an international flotilla of sailing ships that called on Norfolk.
The Tide has survived a hurricane, a minor earthquake, a number of floods in low-lying Norfolk, and a host of other operational challenges. As it awaits its two millionth boarding, the light rail operation has performed reliably, efficiently, and safely. The Tide has integrated itself into the fabric of the region and, in doing so, has become a point of pride.
On Nov. 6, voters in neighboring Virginia Beach (also part of the HRT service area) will decide if they want city leaders to pursue light rail in that city. Also, the Norfolk City Council has asked HRT to begin studying an extension to the Norfolk Naval Station, the world’s largest Navy base.
By any standard of measurement, The Tide has been a success. On its opening day, the employees may have been the only group present not surprised.


Passengers wait on the platform for The Tide to arrive.



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