Meeting set on CSX plans for Virginia Avenue tunnel

January 23

CSX tracks  at the tunnel near Garfield Park and H and Second streets SE,  where the proposed construction would start on the Virginia Avenue Tunnel project. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) will lead a public meeting Saturday on a contentious proposal from CSX Transportation to reconstruct a rail tunnel in Southeast Washington.

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency are expected to address concerns related to the proposed plan for the 3,800-foot-long tunnel that runs beneath Virginia Avenue SE, from Second to Eleventh streets.

Neighbors in Navy Yard and Capitol Hill have organized against the project, capturing the attention of several city leaders, and asking the D.C. Department of Transportation to deny the CSX plan to build.

The proposal is under review by DDOT and the Federal Highway Administration. The agencies could release a final environmental assessment of the project early this year. And after the assessment is completed, the federal agency is expected to issue a decision on the project. If CSX wins federal approval, it would then apply to DDOT for construction permits, and the city can approve or deny that request.

CSX wants to install two rail tracks and create more overhead room for double-stacked container trains. During the construction, the century-old rail tunnel would need to be ripped out and trains would continue to pass through the area.

CSX officials say the tunnel is a major bottleneck in its East Coast rail network and needs the improvements to handle projected increases in freight transportation on the East Coast.

Saturday’s meeting will be at 2 p.m. at 200 I St. SE.

It will focus on environmental issues associated with the project. The EPA said in a letter that the tunnel project presents “some deficiencies and areas of concern, including environmental justice, children’s environmental health, cumulative impacts and community impacts, especially vibration, parks, visual and utility disruptions.”

Opposition to the project has centered on concerns about living next to an open trench during the construction, which could last more than three years. Residents also say they worry about impacts on air quality, increased noise and vibrations and access for residents whose homes are on Virginia Avenue SE.

Norton, who held a similar community meeting in November, has asked the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit to schedule a hearing on the project. While the tunnel affects D.C. residents, she said, federal issues are involved because the Federal Highway Administration is the lead federal agency in the project.

In the past months, the project has also drawn the attention of several city leaders. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) met with nearly 400 residents last week to discuss the controversial project. At that meeting, residents said they fear that  the rail project will stall the progress made in this Southeast neighborhood, which has been rapidly growing with office, housing and retail developments. Gray was urged to help put a stop to the plan.

Ward 6 City Council Candidate Darrel Thompson said last week that he opposes a proposal that includes an open trench.

“As a Councilmember, I will be a bold voice on behalf of this community and make it clear that Ward 6 will not be railroaded by CSX,” he said in a statement.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who is running for mayor, said in a tweet this week that he “will definitely push to see what local government can do.” In December, Wells called on Congress to hold a hearing on the proposal. He said this week he is working on a date for a council hearing on the project.

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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