The highest quality of life available in Hampton Roads isn’t in Norfolk. It isn’t in Virginia Beach, either. Hampton Roads is one of the best mid-sized metros in the country when, and only when, it is lived as one extended feeling of home.
But for years–forever?–Hampton Roads hasn’t felt like a unified region. I’ve never seen anything quite like it: the individual cities puff up and cluck at each other, as if trying to impress some imaginary alpha rooster. The citizens themselves, on the other hand, aren’t as interested in comparing the cities and winning the title of Hampton Roads’ best. Us regular folk don’t see the city lines drawn as definitively as our leaders seem to. We’re animals that like to roam, and we don’t like to stop for imaginary fences.
Also for years–forever?–Hampton Roads has lusted for a professional sports team. As fun as it would have been to cheer on the Tidewater Panthers eight times a year, we’ve wanted a pro team, I think, for more existential reasons. Hampton Roads is missing a sense of unity, a sense of place, that a pro team offers. It’s a valid desire, from that perspective: if you’ve ever lived in a city when the pro team is doing well, you know that feeling of connection that starts to envelop not just diehard sports fan, but the entire community at large.
That said, a major league franchise isn’t coming over that Bridge Tunnel. The best hope we have of unifying the region is through a world class transportation system, starting with the Tide.
A Norfolk/Virginia Beach Metro unified by great mass transit is a place our most talented young people never want to leave. It is a place companies look to move to, not away from. It is a great place to grow old, knowing you’ll still have personal mobility in the years after you’ve given up the car keys. What puts me over the top, though, is thinking about the quality of life this would offer our service members. Once the Tide extends to Naval Station Norfolk, when our soldiers return home it will not be to a somewhat isolated outpost in the corner of a municipality, but to a home that gives them easy access to a university, a vibrant downtown, a world class shopping center in Town Center, and the most refreshing attraction known to man, the ocean.
Extending the Tide into Virginia Beach is the will of the people, after all. In a democracy, that means something to me. According to a poll conducted by Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy, “80 percent of Norfolk and Virginia Beach residents want to see light rail extended.”
Just looking at Virginia Beach taxpayers, the support is still overwhelmingly positive. About 62 percent of voters approved a 2012 referendum that asked “Should the City Council adopt an ordinance approving the use of all reasonable efforts to support the financing and development of The Tide light rail into Virginia Beach?”
The plan on the table right now clearly meets a standard of “reasonable efforts.” The Commonwealth is offering to pay for half the costs to the tune of $155 million. That’s an offer that won’t likely come again. The fight right now in Virginia Beach is over $20 million in the budget for light rail. This is “including almost a third of the proceeds from a 6-cent real estate tax rate increase,” which again, is a reasonable effort expected of taxpayers who, over the long run, will see their property values go up much more than 6% as a result of Hampton Roads finally living up to the sum of its parts, and being a true metro.
I do have serious concerns. Our leaders can feel like insecure teenagers looking for validation in all the wrong places, and the Tide can feel like shiny bling, when compared to the utility of a well developed Bus Rapid Transit system that would serve factors more citizens, and citizens more economically at risk, at that, in Suffolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, and the rest of the traditional Hampton Roads municipalities. Luckily we don’t live in such a binary world. The Tide should become the spine of just such a BRT system that treats everyday riders of all mass transit with basic human dignity and respect. In a region so flat and well-tempered, we also need to continue building up the bike infrastructure until it, too, is world class.
Is there even an alternative? The fact is that transit money spent on roads is the absolute worst transit money you can spend. There is ZERO direct return on investment for roads, as compared to the income from ticket purchases with light rail and buses. More lanes of highway actually make congestion worse. And as a metro so terrifyingly susceptible to climate change, we’re fostering a shared disillusionment if we believe that the individual automobile can continue to play such a central role in American’s lives.
We have to adapt in ways that are sustainable, community-minded, and that attract next generation leaders, all attributes more aptly applied to the Tide than endless roads, endless lanes of highways, infinity potholes filled and filled and filled until they start to fill with the water of the sea.
The Norfolk/Virginia Beach Metro of the future is dynamic, diverse, more inclusive, and easier to get around, without the cost and negative environmental impact of a car. It’s a place I’m so excited to call home one day.
If you agree it’s imperative you make your voice heard. Email Virginia Beach city council members with your feelings. If you are a Virginia Beach resident, make sure to say so. If you’re not, make sure to let them know that with the Tide extended into Virginia Beach, you’re much more likely to spend your money within their city limits, or to move there. You can find their contact info here.