D.C. Council to weigh on plan to retrofit old rail tunnel in SE Washington

April 29, 2014


CSX wants to add a second track and have the tunnel deep enough to accommodate double-stacked container freight trains. People living in the neighborhood are concerned about an open trench where the trains would run while the tunnel is being built virtually in their front yard. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
CSX wants to add a second track and have the tunnel deep enough to accommodate double-stacked container freight trains. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The  D.C. Council will hold a public hearing Wednesday morning on a controversial proposal to rebuild the Virginia Avenue Tunnel in Southeast Washington.

The council is considering a resolution to call on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to hold a hearing on the proposed $200 million project.

Many residents 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 11th streets.  At previous meetings, residents said they are concerned about the impact on air quality, increased noise and vibration and living next to an open trench during construction.

The tunnel is a key piece in the railroad network along the Interstate 95 corridor, and CSX officials say extensive upgrades are needed to continue to support commerce along the East Coast. Use of the tunnel is projected to increase as freight transportation grows, officials said.

CSX wants to restore the tunnel to two tracks and make it two feet taller to allow enough overhead space to run the double-stacked trains that are now standard in freight shipping across the country.

The project would also address structural problems at the tunnel, which requires increasingly more frequent inspections and maintenance to keep rail operations safe. There are cracks in the masonry walls, problems with water infiltration and deteriorating brick.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who introduced the resolution to request a congressional hearing on the project, said the reconstruction of the tunnel raises concerns about rail safety and the passage of hazardous materials through the city. He said it provides an opportunity to reexamine alternatives for rerouting cargo trains from he city.

“I want to be sure that (CSX) has really spent the time looking at all the options for rerouting,” said Wells earlier this year. “It is too easy to say, ‘No, we can’t reroute.’”

Some residents have said they fear the upgrade of the 110-year-old infrastructure could result in greater amounts of crude oil passing through their neighborhood. But CSX officials said residents can rest assured that crude oil transportation through the city is rare and that there is no market in the area for it.

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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