Father of light rail Randy Wright feted on debut’s eve

News source: hamptonroads.com

By Harry Minium
The Virginian-Pilot
© August 19, 2011

For more than a decade, W. Randy Wright was a dogged and often lonely proponent for light rail.

He jetted around the country, button-holing federal transit officials to tell them Norfolk was the perfect place for mass transit. He pored over light-rail budgets, made frequent suggestions on design changes and picked the name for Norfolk’s starter line: The Tide.

Many, including Mayor Paul Fraim, call Wright the father of Norfolk light rail.

With that title came both credit and criticism. When officials announced in 2007 that light rail was coming to the region, he was widely praised. Norfolk was the smallest city in the nation to be approved for light rail.

But when tens of millions of dollars in cost overruns came to light in 2008 and 2009 and the project was delayed for more than a year, he was roundly criticized. A state audit faulted him, among others, for not immediately informing city officials about the overruns.

He paid the political price in May 2010 when he lost his City Council re-election race, despite outspending opponent Tommy Smigiel, who said light rail showed how out of touch Wright was with his ward.

Wright, with a consulting and printing business in Ghent, has largely led a private life since.

That ends today when The Tide opens. Wright will be at the Newtown Road station at 6 a.m. when the first light rail train heads downtown. At 5:30 tonight, he will be feted at a reception by the Hampton Roads Public Transportation Alliance at the Norolk Waterside Marriott.

Fraim and Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms will be among 150 people attending. Wright and his wife, Arlene, are staying in downtown Norfolk this weekend to drink it all in.

“It will absolutely be the most memorable day of my political career,” he said of his first ride on light rail this morning. “I will have a great sense of accomplishment and no regrets for what it took to get there.”

In spite of the cost overruns, Wright, who served on council 18 years, said Norfolk’s light rail system is the cheapest per mile constructed in the nation since 2000. In Seattle, a light rail line about twice the size of Norfolk’s 7.4-mile Tide cost $2.3 billion. Norfolk’s light rail line will cost $318.5 million.

Norfolk’s share of that cost will be about $55 million.

Wright acknowledges that critics have controlled the public conversation. Civic groups opposed to light rail in Virginia Beach have savaged Norfolk’s plan. Some call it the Train to Nowhere – because it ends at the Virginia Beach border.

Others have criticized the subsidies necessary to run light rail. With feeder bus service included, it will cost city, state and federal governments a combined $16 million per year, above fare revenues, to run The Tide.

Wright said accusations that he knew about light rail cost overruns hurt and anger him. The Federal Transit Administration was in charge of monitoring light rail costs, he said. Failing that, he said, state officials, Hampton Roads Transit, HRT consultants and the city manager’s office all should have recognized the problem.

“They were supposed to be there every month getting reports,” he said. “Millions of dollars were spent to monitor the costs. Me, I was a commissioner on the HRT board getting paid $50 per month.”

Wright acknowledges that he withheld information on cost overruns for about a month in 2009, along with other city officials and HRT management. They did so until Dec. 18, 2009, when the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved $20 million to help Norfolk cope with the cost overruns.

State officials asked him to keep mum until the board meeting, he said.

“I was protecting my city, and I would do it again,” he said.

Wright said that sometime this weekend he will quietly board light rail by himself and ride for several hours. He will talk with riders, take in the scenery and reflect on what he accomplished.

“One day light rail will interconnect the entire region,” he said.

“Nobody makes something like this happen by himself, but this would not have happened if someone wasn’t willing to take the political risk and be the premier political champion for the project.

“People are going to look back one day and say how did all of this happen? My name will be there, even if it’s just a footnote.”

Harry Minium, (757) 446-2371, harry.minium@pilotonline.com


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