VA: Ridership on the Tide has not bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, but continues growth

Feb. 7, 2024
The Tide finished 2021 with 620,000 rides. That grew to almost 727,000 rides in 2022 and over 780,000 rides last year.

Ridership on the Tide continues to claw its way back after annual ridership dropped over 50% from 2019 to 2021 during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Passengers took almost 1.34 million rides on the 7.4-mile light rail system in Norfolk in 2019, according to data provided by Hampton Roads Transit.

Monthly ridership topped 121,000 and 123,000 respectivelyin April and October in 2019. However, the impact of the pandemic can be seen as numbers started to drop notably beginning in February 2020. By April 2020, the first full month the COVID-19 public health emergency was declared, passengers took just 25,617 rides.

Even as discussion over potential expansion of the light rail system has stalled, ridership has made some strides at bouncing back. The Tide finished 2021 with 620,000 rides. That grew to almost 727,000 rides in 2022 and over 780,000 rides last year. The highest monthly ridership since the pandemic was June 2023, with 83,000 rides — one of only two months last year when ridership was above 80,000.

“A lot the light rail ridership are workers that live in other cities and use it to get the courthouse area, Norfolk City Hall, the juvenile center — all of those, all those public buildings were shut during the year and half of the pandemic when they were not allowing the public to come in, that’s a big factor,” said Ray Amoruso, HRT’s chief planning and development officer.

He said the rise of work-from-home options during the pandemic may be part of the reason for the slow recovery. Yet as more companies want workers back in the office, that could be contributing to the slow and steady increase in HRT uses.

“Now there’s been a steady uptick but we’re not quite to 2019 levels yet as you can see,” Amoruso said.

Public transit ridership is down across the country. HRT’s bus system is also down from fiscal year 2019 by about 50%, according to Amoruso.

The Tide, which opened in 2011, travels a stretch of downtown Norfolk, passing through Harbor Park, Norfolk State University and along North Military Highway before ending at South Newtown Road along the border with Virginia Beach. Early plans to extend the rail system to other cities — first to Virginia Beach, then Chesapeake, Portsmouth and the Peninsula — never came to fruition.

Despite its limited geographic reach, the rail system is used by more than just Norfolk residents.

Almost 1 in 5 riders are from Virginia Beach, while almost 75% are from Norfolk, according to HRT’s most recent origin and destination study of riders provided by Amoruso.

One example is Ryan Robbins, 28, a civil servant who moved to the area last year from rural New York. He said he likes the light rail. He lives in Virginia Beach and drives five minutes to the Newtown Road station where he catches the train and it takes him 15 minutes to get to his work downtown.

“It’s new to me and it’s been really helpful, honestly,” he said before catching the tram Tuesday morning.

Loyal rider and carpenter Eric Rodriguez, 54, takes the Tide to work as part of his daily two hour, one-way commute into work in Norfolk.

“I gotta’ get there somehow,” he said at the Newtown Road station, explaining that in 2011 he was in a car accident and can no longer drive due to seizures. “I couldn’t live with myself if I killed some kids knowing I shouldn’t’ve been driving, so I don’t do it.”

Donna Holland walks to the Newtown Road station and rides to her work at Fort Norfolk. She’s been riding it since it started, even when she didn’t live nearby.

“It’s convenient, even when I was living at the beach, I still caught it because of traffic,” she said.

Ridership data shows 56% of trips are taken from work to home and 47% of riders use the Tide five or more days a week.

Diversifying the reasons passengers ride the Tide would help build ridership, Amoruso said. Building out a previously discussed 2.2-mile extension from Newtown Road to the Sentara Leigh Hospital campus and Military Circle mall could help with that effort, he said. But the redevelopment of the Military Circle area has been put on hold, and so, too, have plans for the extension, Amoruso said.

“So that two-mile extension, what it does is offer us a true east end anchor for this alignment,” Amoruso said. “When we opened the project back in 2011, we had always said Newtown Road was never intended to be a viable endpoint.”

For now, the light rail offers service every 15 minutes during rush hour. Amoruso said HRT could bring back more frequent 10-minute service during rush hours if ridership calls for it.

Expanding and building more partnerships with businesses and universities could also play a role in bringing back ridership, according to HRT staff.

“I still think ridership will come back to pre-COVID numbers and we’re seeing that systemwide as businesses start to ask their employees to come back physically to work,” Amoruso said. “It’s going to be a slow but progressive ridership increase again.”

Ian Munro, [email protected], 757-447-4097

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