Upfront - High Time For The Tide

Riding the light rail for the first time helps me see Norfolk in a new light

By Michael Jon Khandelwal

When I was a pre-teen growing up in Virginia Beach, I drew maps of where I would personally build a subway system in Hampton Roads, like the Metrorail in Washington, D.C. When my parents pointed out that the water table was too high for subways here, I was undeterred. We had plenty of train tracks, I figured, and we could use those.

My rail system would be even better than Washington’s. I envisioned that no matter where you lived, worked or played, you could walk to a station in a matter of minutes. My trains traveled from the Oceanfront to the Bay beaches, from Pungo to NASA Langley, from the Navy base to Smithfield and from ODU to Pembroke’s sky-scrapers (I also wanted to build several of those there, taller, most definitely, than the Empire State Building). Of course, there was a special stop at Mike’s Trainland at Coleman’s Nursery in Portsmouth. That place was the coolest. So, when the announcement to build a light rail starter line in Norfolk was made a few years back, I immediately envisioned my first trip on the train. I would ride from my house in Ghent to Tony’s Hot Dogs on Newtown Road. I could have a couple beers at Tony’s and not worry about driving home. It was like the starter line was made for fans of the area’s best hot dogs.

The Monday after Hurricane Irene—the first day passengers are required to buy tickets—I grab my first chance to ride the Tide. I board the train near Phil’s Cafe at the EVMC/Fort Norfolk Station and sit in front, so I can see out the front window. The cabins are spacious and clean, with wide windows on either side and seats facing forward, backward and sideways. Ample handicapped seating is available, and there are bike racks, too. A mother and adult daughter walk in and sit near me. The daughter has ridden the train several times already and is taking her mother on her first ride. They’re both excited, like me. We take off and head toward downtown.

Our first stop is York Street/Freemason, and we’re right near the YMCA. Bibliophile Books and Omar’s Carriage House are nearby. Many of the businesses in this area have suffered during construction, and I hope they all enjoy a resurgence of customers now that the trains are running.

We stop at the light at Boush Street and wait for opposing traffic, then slowly make our way down Charlotte Street and Monticello Avenue. At the Monticello station, we’re very near the NorVa, TCC, part of Granby Street and the mall, though the daughter points out to her mother and me that the next stop is much better for mall access.

At The MacArthur Square station, many passengers enter and exit the train, those incoming armed with full shopping bags from the mall. This is probably the stop most convenient to places like Nauticus, Town Point Park and Waterside.

Since it’s evening, no one really gets off at the Civic Plaza station, and we continue on toward Harbor Park. That station is on the 3rd base side of the stadium, and I wonder why it’s not at center field. Then I see the old Boathouse and the expanse of parking. This is a great place for the future development of something entertaining and unique: marinas, theaters, new stadiums for NFL teams—I just hope condos with fake balconies are never built here.

We proceed up on elevated tracks and travel faster. It’s not long until we reach the Norfolk State University station, our station high in the air. To the south is the Campostella Bridge, and as we head east, we pass spare trains parked below us and the maintenance area for the Tide. Very cool view.

As we travel the old Norfolk Southern byway, we come to the Ballentine/Broad Creek station, pass under the freeway, cruise along lakefronts and pull into the Ingleside Road station, which is right in the middle of a neighborhood filled with boomera houses and well-trimmed yards.

Continuing east, gates come down at intersections and the train whistles at each crossing. Vertical and horizontal indicator lights are replaced by a single indicator—a flashing white dot means the gates are up and the intersection is not secure, and a steady white dot means the gates are down and it’s safe for the train to proceed.

When we arrive at the Military Highway station, we’re isolated. I don’t think they intend for people to walk from here to the mall, and that’s unfortunate. There’s plenty of parking and many waiting buses, but the development opportunities along a pedestrian byway could mean real money for Norfolk.

We arrive at the Newtown Road station about 25 minutes after we began the journey. It’s jarring that the train line suddenly ends here, when it could easily continue on into Virginia Beach.

I get off the train, hungry for a Tony’s hot dog and walk north past more busses and parking lots. It looks like a long way to Tony’s—which is between I-264 and Virginia Beach Boulevard—but the exercise will do me good. As I pass Ruby Tuesday’s, I smell bacon, but I don’t stop. The sidewalk, though, does. It’s odd that it ends here without warning, but I cross the busy street carefully and continue north, past the Denny’s my friends and I frequented
during high school.

I cross Greenwich Road awkwardly—there’s not a clear crosswalk—and pass the 7-11. Then, the sidewalk ends again.

What the heck? After walking half a mile, the sidewalk ends before the underpass for I-264? There’s no way someone could safely continue north on Newtown Road. I turn around and walk away without a Tony’s dog topped with onions, mustard and homemade chili. I wouldn’t even feel comfortable telling people to ride a bike down Newtown Road. There’s a lot of traffic, and it’s fast. I understand that the underpass is decades older than the Tide and was built in a time when people probably didn’t want to walk down Newtown Road, but I’m still irritated.

I spot Trilogy Comics just to the east of Rite Aid at the corner of Newtown and Princess Anne roads. Inside the huge store—stacked floor to ceiling with comic books, toys, games, anime and books—I ask owner Jerry Hogan if he’s noticed an increase in business since the Tide opened. He tells me he’s had several customers ride the Tide to his store—some regulars and some who were just exploring the area around the stop.

On the way back to the station, I notice a historical marker displayed prominently on the side of the road. It teaches me that New Town—a town slightly to the south on the eastern branch of the Elizabeth River—was the seat of Princess Anne County from 1752–1778. But by the early 1800s it ceased to exist.

Back on the train, heading west, I start to feel better about missing my dinner at Tony’s because the rhythm and sounds of the train itself are comforting. A mother and her pre-school-aged daughter are riding just for fun, and the child is on the phone talking to her dad about what she sees out the window. A Norfolk police officer checks for tickets and asks one passenger to get off at the next stop and make a purchase.

I know I don’t want this experiment in light rail to cease to exist. And Newtown Road—or Ghent—cannot be allowed to be the end of the line for the Tide. It has to keep expanding—perhaps not to every place on the maps of my childhood, but it must connect the important places in Hampton Roads.

As we head to downtown Norfolk, I think about getting off at Harbor Park and catching the last half of the game, but I’m already planning to ride the Tide to see the Tides the following weekend. As we pass the Hague Inlet, the beauty of the view is impressive—the street lights reflect off the still water at dusk. When you’re not driving, you really see what surrounds you.

Riding the train, I’ve seen Norfolk from an entirely different angle, and it continues to impress me. I really hope that I’ll be impressed soon by the other cities in Hampton Roads as well.

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