Virginia Beach light rail – a model for Prince William?

The Virginian-Pilot editorialized on March 16 that a new light-rail line should be extended from Norfolk to the Atlantic Ocean coastline of Virginia Beach.  The rail line parallels an existing expressway, and the city is breaking from the just-widen-the-highway-again approach.

The mayor of Virginia Beach says it’s time to start “weaning ourselves off the stranglehold of automobiles.”  The newspaper editors warned that, without mass transit, “the city and the region will be stuck with a transportation system designed for the 1960s, when land was plentiful and fuel cheap.”

Yup, we know that problem in Northern Virginia… but is light rail the solution for Prince William County?

The answer is simple: no.

Norfolk/Virginia Beach are taking advantage of an abandoned Norfolk Southern freight route.  The two cities are slowly linking the business district of downtown Norfolk to the closest equivalent in Virginia Beach (Town Center), and linking both to the convention/resort facilities on the Atlantic Ocean.

Light rail can work in Northern Virginia – Arlington and Fairfax counties are planning to build a brand new light rail line on Columbia Pike.  It will link Skyline Towers to Pentagon City.  No previous rail line exists, a new Metrorail line would cost waaaay too much, so light rail is the right answer for mass transit there.

In contrast, Prince William already has Norfolk Southern and CSX lines in place.  VRE links directly to downtown DC, and Amtrak links to Boston, Atlanta, and Chicago.  We’re well-positioned to use standard rail as our transit infrastructure.

Monorails move visitors at Disneyland, a ferry transports commuters between Staten Island and Manhattan, and heavy Metrorail is financially feasible only in densely-developed areas near DC.  However, simply transplanting technology that might work in other places to Prince William makes no more sense than planting bananas in Woodbridge.  Just because bananas are a commercial success in Honduras does not mean we should build a banana infrastructure here.

Our challenge is to incentivize growth next to existing or planned VRE stations, and to discourage new development in areas far from transit.  New technology is not the solution to our land use challenge.

Why do we keep hearing about technology solutions that are not related to our transportation problems?  Some of it is based on give-me-a-simple-answer thinking by frustrated commuters stuck in traffic, but there’s more.

Right now, landowners near VRE stations will profit from increased demand to live near transit.  Landowners near proposed light rail, Metro, and ferry stations would get a windfall profit, if taxpayers ignore cost-benefit considerations and fund new transportation networks.

(If Prince William ever wakes up and smells the coffee, the county will plan/zone to focus new development on county property at Innovation.  A new VRE station and town center at Innovation would be “smart” and could replace the Broad Run VRE station, where  development is constrained by airport safety considerations.  Think that will happen before fresh-picked banana stands open on Dale Boulevard?)

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1 comment so far

  1. Raul on

    Why would you not want a light rail? I lived in Virgnia Beach for years, and always had to depend on a car. I think a light rail would be a real boom to Virgninia Beach. I think that car dealerships in the air have way to much pull on the mass media and politicians. They keep wanting to sell cars to all the young military guys? I think V.B. should be a modern city, that is why I left. Another thing, when are you guys going to get rid of those awful wooden electrical poles from the 1800s?! They are a sight for sore eyes, and also with the high winds from the ocean, the power goes out way to much! (used to be an electrician). Put those darn things under ground, so that they don’t blow over! MODERNIZE!!!


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