Catching up with The Tide: Strong ridership for Norfolk LRT.

Norfolk's new light rail system, "The Tide," opened for service on Friday, Aug. 19. Here, riders wait to board a Siemens S70 LRV on Aug. 24. Photo by Flickr user jsmjr, and used via Creative Commons license. Click for photostream.

Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim had to walk across town to his law office one day last month, in what he described as a mark of success for Virginia’s first light rail system.

That, as he told The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, was because opening day crowds eager to ride “The Tide” created hour-long waits at some stations and prompted officials to add extra trains and supplemental bus service to accommodate the masses on a sweltering summer day. According to this article by Rail.co, operator Hampton Roads Transit claims more than 30,000 passengers boarded the cars during the first day of service, on which intending riders began arriving at stations half an hour before the 6 am start of service. More than 75,000 people rode during the three-day opening weekend, according to this Aug. 23 Virginian-Pilot article.

The Tidewater region’s pioneer LRT line serves 11 stations, running 7.4 miles from the Eastern Virginia Medical Center, east through downtown Norfolk to Newtown Road. It cost $318 million to build, more than $85 million over budget. Even so, the cost was “just $43 million a mile, less than any recently completed or under construction light rail system in the United States,” as blogger Yonah Freemark notes at thetransportpolitic.com.

Cost isn’t the only number exceeding predictions. According to estimates released last week, average ridership has been pegged at 5,600 per day, nearly double the initial estimate of 2,900. That is down slightly from the initial days of paid service. The system opened on Aug. 19, but the $1.50 fare only began to be collected on Aug. 29. A Sept. 7 Virginian-Pilot article cited an average daily ridership of 6,500 passengers in the week after fare collection began. Another source suggested that the tally even topped 9,100 riders on Saturday, Sept. 3.

The line’s success has created some unforeseen teething problems. As The Virginian-Pilot also pointed out on Sept. 7, too few ticket machines had resulted in long lines, to the extent that busy periods saw passengers encouraged to board without tickets and buy them after leaving the train — an admitted leap of faith, although HRT was waiting to see whether the problems worked themselves out, as riders’ familiarity with the system improved, before actively exploring any changes.

As WTKR-TV also reported, LRVs are equipped with computerized sensors checking everyone that enters and exits, but with that system “just in its infancy … HRT hired people to sit and tally everyone as they come on board to double check.”

That’s not to say more muscular means weren’t deployed to ensure compliance: Norfolk Police regularly patrol the trains “to make sure that everyone has a ticket,” the TV station reported.

Really? I’m not sure what’s most disturbing — that armed police officers are performing the work of conductors, that there isn’t a better use of their time or that officials probably believe police are needed on the trains to deter more serious crimes than fare evasion (and are too cynical or genteel to say so).

Even as the new system wrestles with the happy problems of popularity, the next big question is whether — or when — it might be expanded to serve Virginia Beach. WTKR also took up the issue, on Sept. 16.

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