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Amid an ongoing debate about extending service to Virginia Beach, Norfolk’s light-rail service is offering free rides all weekend, starting today.
The freebies come as Hampton Roads Transit and Norfolk mark the fifth anniversary of the Tide, the city’s 7.4-mile light-rail system. It also comes as Virginia Beach voters are slated to weigh in on a nonbinding referendum in November about extending service to the City’s Town Center.
“We believe that the Tide’s presence in Norfolk has been an unqualified success,” Tom Holden, a spokesperson for the transit agency, said in a phone interview.
The Tide’s anniversary celebration will be from noon to 2 p.m. at MacArthur Square Light Rail Station, 301 E. City Hall Ave. The party will feature food trucks, cupcakes, games and music. Local and state officials will be on hand, including Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms, Norfolk Mayor Kenneth C. Alexander, Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne and William E. Harrell, president and CEO of Hampton Roads Transit, according to an announcement on the transit authority’s website.
A spokesperson for Mayor Sessoms did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.
A video on the transit authority’s website, entitled “Celebrating the Tide’s 5 Years of Success,” says the light rail has contributed $532 million in economic development in Norfolk. Since the Tide debuted, downtown Norfolk has seen a 72-percent spike in new residential housing units, from 2,050 units in 2010 to 3,527 units in 2016, according to the video. The city has also seen a 25 percent increase in residents between the ages of 20 and 34 in four years, according to census data, the video says.
Still, recent Tide ridership statistics fell short of the transit agency’s target, according to draft financial statements prepared as part of a June fiscal year 2016 financial report that is on the agency’s website. To date, actual ridership for the 2016 fiscal year is 1.33 million, which is 15 percent less than the target ridership of 1.56 million, the report said.
According to Holden, transit ridership ebbs and flows pursuant to several variables, including gas prices and weather. When the cost of gas increases, so does ridership, he said; during the winter, transit use tends to drop.
The light rail is also part of addressing congestion on the I-264 corridor, he said.
“It’s not an investment for the next five years,” Holden said. “It’s for the next 50.”
The Tide currently spans an 11-station route from Eastern Virginia Medical Center to Newtown Road, on the Virginia Beach border. Trains run roughly every 15 minutes on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., with more limited service on weekends.
The proposed extension would add about three miles to the system, from Norfolk to Town Center, at an estimated cost of as much as $310 million.
“People will use transit when it is convenient and serves their needs,” Holden said.
To learn more about the Tide, visit the transit authority’s website.