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Rick Shapiro
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The Tide: How Much Like Other Cities’ Light Rail Systems Will It Be?

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On August 19, 2011, Norfolk, Virginia (VA), will become the newest U.S. city to offer commuters the option of light rail. The Tide is being welcomed by many elected officials who consider the 8 miles of tracks through downtown to the border of northwest Virginia Beach a path to increased commercial and residential development that also promises to take cars off congested surface roads and highways.

Many members of the public treat The Tide much more skeptically, pointing to construction cost overruns, an initial lack of attention to safety features and a route that does not provide access to Norfolk International Airport, Norfolk Naval Base, most neighborhoods outside the very center of the city or neighboring localities whose residents might be drawn to downtown Norfolk more frequently if they did not have to worry about traffic jams and parking.

A light rail concern that appears equally shared among Hampton Roads Transit, which will operate The Tide, Norfolk officials, drivers, pedestrians and potential riders, though, is how many accidents introducing 50-ton traveling an average of 30 mph and crossing numerous streets will cause. Since spring 2010, HRT has been running public service announcements like this one to remind people to watch for and heed warning lights, gates and train horns at rail crossings:

Time will tell how effective such safety messaging is. In the same way, several years or decades of data will be needed to show whether the combined federal-Norfolk-Virginia investment of $338 million in building The Tide has paid off economically. Already being somewhat in the forecasting business, however, the Virginian-Pilot drew a comparison between Norfolk’s new light rail system and the Lynx in Charlotte, North Carolina (NC), which launched in 2007. The newspaper noted that ridership quickly spiked to 18,000 commuters per day before leveling off at a current 15,000 daily riders. Building along the Lynx right-of-way has also boomed, with Charlotte’s business community projecting around $3 billion in new development directly tied to light rail by 2017.

Projections for the impact of The Tide are much more modest: 2,900 riders a day during the first year and $220 million in right-of-way development. One area where Norfolk’s light rail would do well to match Charlotte’s commuter trains, though, is the low number of accidents. Statics compiled by the Federal Transit Authority show that all across the country, light rail has the lowest rates of accidents and passenger fatalities per million miles traveled of any form of public transportation. As near as I can tell after searching online, Charlotte Lynx trains have been involved in no crashes in which someone died.

The story of light rail safety does vary from city to city. Houston and San Diego, in particular, have had numerous serious and fatal collisions since introducing commuter trains in their downtowns. Having represented victims of train crashes for more than two decades, I know how devastating those accidents can be. I hope that The Tide will not raise my caseload.

EJL

About the Editors: The Shapiro, Cooper, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.