The Ails of Light Rail 

Opinion: "You don’t build a church for Easter Sunday. And you don’t build a light-rail system for a once-in-a-blue-moon traffic jam."

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Sunday after Sunday I arrive at church with seconds to spare before the opening hymn.

Yet I always find a seat.

Not so on Easter. Chronic latecomers found the sanctuary packed two weeks ago. Standing room only. Yet I didn’t hear a single worshipper who was propped up against the wall gripe that we need a bigger church.

You don’t build a church for Easter Sunday. And you don’t build a light-rail system for a once-in-a-blue-moon traffic jam.

Yet that’s what Virginia’s transportation secretary seemed to suggest recently when he said that his frustrating two-hour drive between Virginia Beach and downtown Norfolk was a reason to build a $100 million-a-mile rail line.

“You could not get out of the Beach this morning,” Aubrey Layne lamented when he arrived late to a meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board in Norfolk on Wednesday, April 15.

What wasn’t mentioned was that the morning gridlock that day was due to extraordinary circumstances that might never happen again. After all, how often do drivers jump out of moving cars, closing the interstate?

According to Virginia State Police and news reports, at about 6:40 a.m. the driver of a Jeep — and apparently a graduate of the Ejector-Seat School of Driving — leaped from her moving car on Interstate 264 near Witchduck Road because she thought her brakes were malfunctioning.

A Honda minivan swerved to avoid running over the driver-turned-pedestrian and hit her unmanned car. The driverless car hit a BMW. Meanwhile, the minivan was rear-ended by a car, which was then hit by yet another car.


In total, it appears that five cars were involved in this chain-reaction wreck. Four people were injured. McJumpy was charged with reckless driving and failure to maintain control of a vehicle.

The accident closed the westbound lanes for more than 90 minutes while the wreckage and the injured people were removed. Naturally, it took a lot longer for traffic to return to normal.

Yet light-rail cheerleader and Virginia’s transportation honcho, who apparently subscribes to the never-let-a-crisis-go-to-waste club, used this freak accident to advocate for light rail.

According to a report by The Virginian-Pilot’s Dave Forster, Aubrey Layne announced the exciting news: The state would fund $155 million of a light-rail expansion into Virginia Beach no matter how much the project costs. In other words, taxpayers from Abingdon to Accomac will be delighted to learn that they’re being forced to pony up for Virginia Beach’s developer-driver project.

“The remarks came at a meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board in downtown Norfolk, where Layne arrived late,” Forster wrote. “He said it took him about two hours to drive from his home in Virginia Beach because of traffic backups on the interstate. When he finally arrived, he used the situation as an example for why he supports light rail.”

When I talked to him last week, Layne acknowledged that his trip was not typical of the drive between the two cities.

“Obviously, it was an anomaly,” he conceded with a laugh. “But that’s not such an anomaly in Northern Virginia.”

Of course, we’re not in Northern Virginia.

Layne told me he lives in the Little Neck area and got on the interstate at Rosemont Road. Instead of waiting in traffic, Layne got off I-264 and headed toward Shore Drive only to find congestion everywhere he turned. “I probably should have stayed on the interstate.”

The secretary noted that around the same time he heard radio reports of an accident on the twin bridges. In other words, rush hour Wednesday morning was a harmonic convergence of traffic problems.

How exactly would light rail help?

“I’ll be the first to admit that light rail is not going to reduce congestion,” Layne said.

Of course it’s not. Projections show the extension to Town Center will carry an anemic passenger load of about 1,100 a day.

In 19 years.

Here’s a thought: In the interest of honest debate on the emotional subject of light-rail expansion, let’s leave traffic relief out of it. The trains won’t help. Even the secretary of transportation admits that. S

Kerry Dougherty is a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.



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