As Norfolk plans the next expansion of its burgeoning light rail system, a classic transit dilemma faces the community: Will the northern extension to Naval Station Norfolk run through rider-rich urban neighborhoods or take the path of least resistance along wide suburban highways?

Potential light rail routes. Image from HRT.

Hampton Roads Transit is planning two light rail extensions. One, east to Virginia Beach, is relatively straightforward; it will follow an old rail right-of-way. The other, north to Naval Station Norfolk, is a challenge.

The northern extension will have to run on or adjacent to streets, and could follow any one of several alignments planners are currently considering.

If the light rail follows Granby Street, a tightly packed urban commercial street, or Hampton Boulevard, the main street through Old Dominion University, then it will probably capture a lot of local riders, since those are walkable transit-friendly destinations. On the other hand, adding transit lanes would be more disruptive for car drivers on narrow streets than on wider, more suburban highways, since there’s less space to go around.

Conversely, if the light rail follows the more easterly Military Highway, there will be plenty of space to accommodate trains without disrupting cars, and commuters to the navy base using park-and-rides near the end of the line will have a quick ride from their cars to the base.

But that alignment wouldn’t serve any strongly walkable neighborhoods; it would even miss downtown Norfolk. It would offer quick rides to one destination and easy construction, but the resulting line would be a glorified parking shuttle to the navy base, not the spine of a transit-oriented community.

Maybe after a few decades a Military Road alignment might induce enough transit oriented development that some of its stations could become walkable. Or maybe not. In the meantime, Norfolk’s genuinely urban neighborhoods will still need better transit.

Meanwhile, the Church Street alignment would split the difference by skirting the outer edge of downtown Norfolk, and the Chesapeake Boulevard alignment would snake along an indirect route that serves a few additional neighborhoods, but would be very slow from end to end. These options look like compromises unlikely to satisfy anybody.

Planners have already dropped the most urban alignment options, which would have gone through Norfolk’s dense Ghent neigborhood. Not only does that mean the most walkable part of Norfolk besides downtown will be without rail, but also that the western end of the existing light rail line will be a spur, forcing transfers.

Experience says pick the urban options

The fast and easy suburban options are tempting. Not only are they the path of least resistance, but computer models of traffic behavior probably predict that the more suburban routes capture the most navy base commuters.

But history shows light rail systems built like that don’t work very well. Computer models are good at predicting long distance car commutes, but bad at understanding travel in walkable areas. They naturally push planners towards park-and-ride oriented systems, when we know the most successful transit routes follow dense walkable corridors instead.

So Norfolk faces a choice: Embrace the city and build a transit line for the city, or follow a highway and build a park-and-ride shuttle.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and an adjunct professor at George Washington University. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado and lives in Trinidad, DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post. Dan blogs to express personal views, and does not take part in GGWash's political endorsement decisions.