The challenge that the region has is with the fact that it’s a coastal region. Transportation infrastructure development is complicated by many water crossings. This also, however, contributes to the strategic value to the nation of the region. Not only a major harbor on the East Coast, it is home to the world’s largest naval base.
Townes says, “It took a serious belief in ourselves and in our project and in our region. It took a never-say-die attitude. It took a partnership between Norfolk and HRT and within our commission; it took the other six cities to be supportive of Norfolk’s effort to move ahead.”
The Tide is something HRT takes an awful lot of pride in, Townes says. “How it came about is a result of a lot of hard work and a result of a never-say-die attitude on the part of Jane Whitney, who’s the senior vice president of development here at HRT.” He also refers to her as the mother of light rail in Hampton Roads. “She lived with that project literally for almost two decades,” he says.
He also commends the leadership of the city of Norfolk and Hampton Roads. “Willing to step out a single entity, to put in light rail as a starter line and anticipate that other communities would join. I think it was quite a significant risk on the part of the city and quite a show of leadership in this region.”
The construction started in December 2007 and, despite the construction marketplace prices rising, it is going well. HRT has been working closely with local institutions to make sure everyone remains in alignment and that they remain stakeholders and partners with HRT. One of the partnerships he mentions is with Norfolk State University.
The university is adjacent to the line, about midway through the run, and has two state sites, one on either end of campus. There were legitimate needs of the university to ensure that the station sites were compatible with what occurs on campus and that the learning environment wasn’t in any way jeopardized. In exchange, Townes says the project was able to provide Norfolk State with substantial land to advance some of its interest in terms of a research capability near the campus. It’s also been agreed to that going forward there may be some joint development opportunities.
“I think that that very complicated partnership is working out very well but there was a point and time that we didn’t have full agreement of the parties and that caused some minor complications for early construction,” Townes explains. “Right now I would say that because we have a couple more for bid packages to open and to award, we don’t have complete certainty of the impact on the total budget for the final budget for the project. We don’t know exactly whether we’re going to be within the timeframe of the FTA or whether we will have to ask the FTA to recognize a slight delay.
“I think overall, given what I know about the construction environment, given what I know about the capacity of the transportation industry and support groups to support the development of rail projects, there is kind of a deficit of capacity out there.” He stresses, “I think we’re doing pretty darn good.”
A project as large as The Tide is hard on an agency’s staff. It presents many challenges, but, as Townes says, it provides an opportunity to look at all of the internal practices and capabilities. “Sometimes it’s not pretty,” Townes laughs. “To look inside the agency and discover that some capabilities might be lacking, but actually, when you step back from it, it’s an opportunity for us to improve in almost every aspect of what we do.” He emphasizes, “It has kind of revealed to us our strengths and some of our weaknesses and we see that as something that is good because it allows us to maximize our strengths and allows us to work toward improving our weaknesses, and we’re doing just that.”
HRT Looking Forward
Another area HRT is focusing on is sustainability. “We have a big commitment of moving toward becoming one of the most sustainable transit organizations in the industry,” Townes says. As signatories to the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) accord, the agency has a defined goal it is working toward. “I feel that the UITP construct presented a framework that offered a positive challenge to a staff that already had a great deal on its plate.” He continues, “I thought it would help me articulate to this staff that was already under challenge, why accepting an additional challenge such as moving toward sustainability was not only important, but necessary and in their interest.