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Commuter Rail in Hampton Roads

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I have been giving this some thought -- since I saw the plans for the Orlando area commuter rail start up Link. I have some ideas -- too much to put out in one posting -- that I'd like to share and have others comment on. Let me start with the potential routes. Later postings will cover the equipment, the finances, and the "next phase". Finally, a discussion on why this needs to happen.

First, you have to discuss what is possible, and where the demand exists. Certainly, commuter rail would follow existing rail lines in the South Hampton roads area (connections to the peninsula would be the "next phase" -- HR third crossing). We are blessed here in that we don't have the same demand for limited rail resources that limits the VRE. We do have conflicting rail cargo traffic, but nothing like the volumes in the DC corridor, one of the major N-S rail cargo routes. We don't have Amtrak conflicts here on the southside. We do have container traffic out of the ports as well as supplies going in and out of the Ford plant as well as the coal loading piers. It would be important to de-conflict as much of that as possible. We are fortunate that much of the traffic on that route is destinating here, or originates here. This will ease dispatch conflicts, as the cargo trains can either be held at VIT or in yards (such as off Campostella) for the mid day "break" or between 8:30 PM and 5:30 AM. Unfortunately, the Ford plant will soon be history.

The demand is obviously to the Navy Base, and the surrounding areas (such as the Atlantic Command compound at Hampton and International). One of the valid criticisms of the initial phase of the light rail is that it doesn't serve this area. Fortunatly, we are blessed with extensive rail access right to the front door of the Navy Base -- an existing line crossing Hampton Blvd and entering VIT just east of the grain elevators. This line loops east to 564, then along 64 to Wards Corner, south (with double trackage) under Tidewater, crossing Chesapeake Blvd and meeting the LR track just south of 264 and just east of Ballentine. This is mainly NS track.

The routes south and west diverge just after passing the Ford plant, after crossing the Eastern branch of the Elizabeth. One goes south through the auto unloading yard near Campostella (the direct linkage to this would have to be rebuilt -- less than 1/4 mile, and the ROW exists), then joins the Chesapeake and Albemarle all the way past Elizabeth City to Edenton and Weeksville. The western route winds through Berkley, and crosses the Elizabeth just north of the Jordan Bridge, just south of the shipyard. It then winds up to parallel Turnpike and Airline, all the way to Suffolk and Franklin.

Initial service could extend to Franklin and Elizabeth City. Both are roughly 50 miles from Norfolk, and would take approximately an hour. The Franklin line could stop in downtown Suffolk, at a park and ride facility near HR Executive Airport (664, 264, 564 intersection), at Frederick Blvd (or Victory), then at the Shipyard before joining the southern line. The southern line could start in EC, stop in Moyock, Fentress (servicing Great Bridge area at Mt. Pleasant road), park and ride near Volvo Parkway. After they join, stops would be made at Indian River, transfer point where the LR lines cross just south of 264, Chesapeake Blvd (express bus to the airport), Wards Corner (Little Creek Road), and the transit center at Hampton where the lines would end.

Critical to this would be an expanded circulator bus system onboard the Navy Base. That base is incredibly spread out, and sailors are expected to make their way to services located all over the base -- basically forcing car usage. The Navy needs to be a responsible citizen and create a way for its personnel -- many of whom don't pay Va car taxes, or plate fees -- to be able to use mass transit. They already will pay up to $100/month for transit -- now, make it work by circulating their personnel on base. Buses could meet trains at transit center (open space available at Hampton and the rail) with security personnel on board to check IDs. Dedicated lanes would allow non-stop access to the base, as well as the Atlantic Command compound. Buses would also run down Hampton Blvd, servicing ODU.

This "branch" would allow transfer service from the Light Rail to northern Norfolk. It would expand the utility if you could live downtown, yet work at Wards Corner. Live at Town Center (after VB wakes up and extends the LR), and work at the Shipyard. Park your car at HR Executive a/p park and ride, and go to your job downtown -- never sit in traffic, never pay a Downtown tunnel toll. Live in Suffolk, and make one change on your way to the Airport.

Trains would run every 30 min during the rush hours (5:30 - 7:30, 4:30 - 6:30), with staggered service between -- hourly until 8:30. Staggering the south and west lines would give you 15 min between trains on the section between the LR and the Navy base, making for easy connections from the LR, both from east and west.

OK -- that is it for now. Back to work -- More to follow.

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By "commuter rail" I take it you're generally referring to heavy rail between here and the peninsula? Would this then transfer to light rail once you reach Norfolk, or am I reading this wrong and you're generally referring to regional light rail?

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I think he's referring to regional heavy rail.

I think Hampton Roads could stand to benefit from commuter rail service, especially between the Southside and the Peninsula. Like many forms of fixed-infrastructure transit, commuter rail works best when you have a large, discrete set of matching trip origin and destination pairings. To make it work you need thousands of people who live in census tract X AND work in census tract Y. You also need plenty of rail capacity, double track, and sidings where necessary. So if you want to do a serious study of this proposal you'll need the following data:

1. A definition of your study area

2. A geographic representation of every piece of rail and ROW in the study area, and information telling you whether each piece is (a) active railroad, (b) inactive rail, abandoned rail, (d) ROW with no rail, (e) developed ROW.

3. Census journey to work data. How many people living within 1/2 mile or even 1 mile of the rail line work at the "destination"? How clustered are they? Are there enough people who live in A, B, and C who work in D to create a purpose and need for the transit service?

4. Census demographic data. Are the people who live and work along the line likely to use transit?

5. Population and employment forecasts. If there aren't enough people in the area now to make the service work, will there be enough 20-30 years from now? Or conversely, will there be fewer people in the area 20-30 years from now?

6. Through the census data, land use, and tax parcel data, are there identifiable station locations? If so, where, and what challenges are there in developing those areas as stations? Furthermore, which stations are "community" stations and which are Park and Ride?

7. For active rail you'll need to know (a) how many tracks), (b) sidings, if any, where located, owned and used by whom, track users, who are they?, how many trains/day/period/hour

8. Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS)

9. Costs, capital and annual o/m

10. Assessment of potential alternatives (would express bus, light rail, HOV, PRT, or horse-drawn carriages serve the need in a more effective and cost-efficient manner?). All 9 previous steps should be completed for the alternatives.

11. Selection of an LPA (Locally Preferred Alternative)

These steps are part of what's called an Alternatives Analysis. It would be the first step in a long process to secure a coveted FFGA (full-funding grant agreement) with the FTA for such a project. The FTA has a program for "New Starts" transit capital projects that exceed $25 million in capital costs. The New Starts program includes the following steps:

1. Alternatives Analysis (outlined above)

2. Preliminary Engineering

3. Project Justification

4. Demonstration of Local Financial Commitment

5. Final Design

I think this is an idea worth pursuing. If the local MPO and transit authorities do some preliminary planning work to see if it's worth engaging in the complete Federal planning process, then they should engage a consultant to begin with an Alternatives Analysis study and a coinciding DEIS. These studies can be completed in as little as a year, or as long as 5-7 years before proceeding on to the next step in the New Starts Program.

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By "commuter rail" I take it you're generally referring to heavy rail between here and the peninsula? Would this then transfer to light rail once you reach Norfolk, or am I reading this wrong and you're generally referring to regional light rail?

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IThese studies can be completed in as little as a year, or as long as 5-7 years before proceeding on to the next step in the New Starts Program.

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Equipment

This is now possible due to recent advances in rail equipment, namely the development of Federal Railway Administration regulation compliant Diesel Multiple Units.

Multiple units, either diesel or electric, have long been in use in Europe for lightly traveled routes. They combine the motive power and the seating area into a single unit -- essentially a self propelled rail coach. However, to operate on lines shared with freight lines, the FRA regulations have effectively barred the European units from use. Enter the Colorado Rail Car Diesel Multiple Unit (link). These single, or double, deck cars can carry any range of passengers, from 92 up to over 400, demonstrating scability over the projected life of the unit. They are economical to purchase (approx $3.9M per single unit DMU), economical to operate (fuel burn of 2 MPG in 92 psgr operation), quiet (75% less noise than typical diesel locomotive), and environmentally friendly (75% less emissions than typical diesel locomotive). They travel at up to 90 MPH (much faster than LR) and can easily make the runs from Franklin and Elizabeth City to the Navy base in around an hour, including stops.

These are the units proposed for the Central Florida system, and are currently in use in Dade County. Interesting to note, in a study for Hennepin County, MN (Minneapolis and surrounds), that the per mile cost of DMUs were lower than any LR system (they decided on LR, mainly for its ablility to coexist with an existing popular walking trail on the same abandonded rail ROW). (Link)

To meet the operating schedule (every 30 min during rush hour, on both routes, resulting in 15 min between trains from Indian River to the end), it would be necessary to purchase 8 units, plus another 2 spares, for a total of 10.

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The Central Florida system went from first mention in June, 2005, to a projected 2009 start. All of the studies are completed, so I would imagine the same timeline could work here.

This would require VERY little new rail construction, and no new ROW. Most of the construction is for stations, and there is clear land, or an existing station, at every stop. I think we could meet the same 4.5 year timeline.

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I love the idea of putting rail lines out to Elizabeth City and Franklin, in a way, our outermost suburbs. It would be such an incredible boon for both the Hampton Roads area and those localities as well!

I too have lived in a European city (mid-sized, Kaiserslautern, Germany) and I must say that the rail lines were quite helpful on a number of day excursions (Stuttgart, Mannheim, Koblenz, etc.) and that, to a certain extent, rail is necessary for this area to maintain significant growth in a variety of areas. It is highly unfortunate that, as a Peninsula resident, I probably will not be able to enjoy rail here for several decades...

Great ideas though, I must say! Keep up the work :thumbsup: maybe we should, after some considerable discussion and planning, pass a few ideas along to some of the Southside communities... I feel like some fresh, out of the box thinking would be helpful, and Urbanplanet is surely not lacking in that regard.

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I love the idea of putting rail lines out to Elizabeth City and Franklin, in a way, our outermost suburbs. It would be such an incredible boon for both the Hampton Roads area and those localities as well!

I too have lived in a European city (mid-sized, Kaiserslautern, Germany) and I must say that the rail lines were quite helpful on a number of day excursions (Stuttgart, Mannheim, Koblenz, etc.) and that, to a certain extent, rail is necessary for this area to maintain significant growth in a variety of areas. It is highly unfortunate that, as a Peninsula resident, I probably will not be able to enjoy rail here for several decades...

Great ideas though, I must say! Keep up the work :thumbsup: maybe we should, after some considerable discussion and planning, pass a few ideas along to some of the Southside communities... I feel like some fresh, out of the box thinking would be helpful, and Urbanplanet is surely not lacking in that regard.

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Finances

OK, I promised a discussion about finances, and I am now delivering (grin). Since I am a dilletante at this, let me start by saying that this is not a detailed analysis, but more of a back of the envelope rough feasibility study. I started with the Central Florida rail system, a 15 station, 51 mile system using DMUs - total cost $447M. I also looked at the Charlotte proposed system -- 35 miles, roughly $235M. So, our potential system, 75 miles (both branches) over mostly existing track in rural areas, rebuilt or improved once you get to the city, 13 stations will probably be north of Orlando, but not much -- let's say $500M. Where does it come from?

In the 2026 HR plan, there is a plan for a Minimal Operational Segment LR system on the peninsula. What that segement is, is not defined. Planned cost? $510M, with an unfunded additional $1.126B to build it out. There is another unfunded $550M to extend Norfolk's LR past ODU to the Navy Base. I would suggest taking the $510M for the Peninsula LR MOS, build the southside first, then plan on having the peninsula extension, all the way to Williamsburg ready to tie into the Third Crossing in roughly 2017 by taking the $550M for the extension of the Norfolk LR, which will now not be needed. Bottom line is that the money is there, even if the political will isn't right now.

But this finances discussion cannot happen in a vacuum. This is as much about the shared vision we all have for our home. Do we want to enable single occupancy vehicles to be our sole method of moving our working population to and from their work? Unfortunately, geography limits our options here in HR. Saw the other day where Phoenix is rebuilding a stretch of IH10 to 13 lanes each way -- total of 26. We don't have that option, so increasing throughput is our only solution to reducing congestion. We must develop a way to move workers across the region, including from downtown out to Suffolk and Chesapeake and Portsmouth, as well as the other way around. Tangentially, it would be a good thing to reduce carbon emissions, as well as our appetite for oil -- which is doing nothing but delivering finances to people who hate us. But only the residents of HR, by pressure on our elected officials, can reallocate the resources to create and adapt the transportation infrastructure. Washington will not come here and impose an effective mass transit system on us -- if we are going to have alternatives to ever increasing gas prices, then we have to place an effective rail based system on at least a par with infrastructure that relies on single occupancy vehicles.

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Well alot of our problem is that most of us work in another city than we live. It would also help if we actually had a CBD. I live in Norfolk and work in Hampton. Most of the people I know have to travel to another city just to work. If we were smart we would try to build a CBD that would service the entire metro. I know this will never happen but I think this is what causes alot of our problems. I don't know if we will ever see heavy rail around here.

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Interesting editorial in today's VP

Twin cities, twin destinies

To get a taste of what's to come, all residents have to do is take a trip to Northern Virginia to see two possible futures. On the east, you'll find Arlington. What was once a strip of car dealers, garages and low-slung shops is now a vibrant high-rise canyon of offices, homes, stores and restaurants. Traffic, while bad, is better than it could be; many travelers instead opt for the subway that undergirds the entire corridor.

Arlington, now with a population that tops 200,000, has transformed itself into one of the densest cities in America. It's also one of the best-educated and wealthiest. The Metro system built Arlington, or more accurately, allowed Arlington to be built.

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Interesting editorial in today's VP

Here is a link to the entire editorial, but the potential to match that here in HR exists. Were we to build an integrated rail transit system, stretching from Williamsburg to Elizabeth City, our Rosslyn - Clarendon corridor could be Wards Corner to Chesapeake Blvd. Just ask folks who lived in NoVa in 1975 about what Rosslyn looked like, and they will describe something that doesn't look much different than Wards Corner today. Part of the funding for this potential rail system could come from TIFs, stretching up to a mile radius from each potential rail station -- split between the hosting city and the rail operating system. If we build this system, TODs will occur -- proven in every city where rail has been built, including a previously car dependant city, Dallas. The system that facillitates those TODs needs to recoup some of that investment through the resultant increased real estate values.

One thing the editorial points out is that Arllington has made every land use decision for years with a vision towards what now exists. The reason we need to get this rail vision on the table, is to start making the land use decisions that will support a vision not to be realized for thirty years. Mass transit, without supporting land use, is pointless. Integrated planning, combined with safe, efficient, useful transit, is transformational.

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We probably need nothing less than a national rail and transit program, with funding levels comparable to the old Eisenhower Interstate System to pull this off. Given a growing concern about domestic job creation and our deteriorating infrastructure, there may be some push to do this someday. It sure beats the current policy of wrecking and then rebuilding foreign countries. Let's hope there's some money left for us when things settle down. I don't see state and local sources alone being enough.

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Do we honestly think that this will ever happen here with some of the poor decisions that are being made nowadays by the people in power? I hope so but I'm not holding my breath. There really isn't any comparison between us and Nova. Look at the job market there compared to ours. We can't even touch them.

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We probably need nothing less than a national rail and transit program, with funding levels comparable to the old Eisenhower Interstate System to pull this off. Given a growing concern about domestic job creation and our deteriorating infrastructure, there may be some push to do this someday. It sure beats the current policy of wrecking and then rebuilding foreign countries. Let's hope there's some money left for us when things settle down. I don't see state and local sources alone being enough.

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