A key step for Virginia Avenue Tunnel project expected soon


The CSX train tracks that go underground at the tunnel near Garfield Park and H at 2nd Streets Southeast under the Southeast-Southwest Freeway is the site where the proposed construction would start on the Virginia Ave.  (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

D.C. and federal transportation officials on Friday announced plans to release a final environmental impact statement on the proposed reconstruction of the Virginia Avenue Tunnel in Southeast.

Residents, public and rail industry officials have long been waiting for the final environmental assessment, which is an important step for the project to move forward after years of planning and numerous public meetings.  In April, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) asked U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to expedite the release of the document and said residents who live near the 110-year-old tunnel have long been waiting to get answers to questions about whether and how controversial project will proceed.

In an announcement on the project’s Web site, the D.C. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration said they expect to release the FEIS in the next couple of weeks. After its release, the public will have 30 days to review the document and a public meeting will be held.

CSX Transportation wants to convert the tunnel’s single track into a two-track configuration and allow overhead room for double-stacked container trains. The company says the tunnel that runs beneath Virginia Avenue SE, from Second to 11th streets, is inadequate for modern freight capacity and is a major bottleneck in its rail network. The $200 million upgrade would allow it to handle expected increases in freight transportation on the East Coast.

The project, which CSX would fund, has become a touchy subject among area residents. Some cite concerns about its impact on public safety, the environment and access.  The project also has revived the debate on rail safety. At numerous public meetings, the discussion has centered on concerns about derailments similar to those that have recently occurred in other parts of the country and on the transportation of hazardous materials.

Other residents say the tunnel and railroad no longer fit the character of the neighborhood, just a mile from the U.S. Capitol, and in a growing community of townhouses and new commercial development.

James McPhillips, an attorney who moved to the Navy Yard area with his wife just over a year ago, said the announcement that the agencies plan to release the final environmental impact statement is “disappointing and disturbing news.”

“There has been no indication that DDOT and FWHA have taken into serious consideration the need for a holistic rail plan,” he said in an e-mail, noting a D.C. Council proposal to pay for the creation of a comprehensive rail plan.

“CSX is rushing to get its pet project started before serious infrastructure planners can take a hard look at how it might impact the rest of the District,” he said. “People in the community have been asking for a supplemental study to review safer and more reasonable alternatives than what CSX has put forth to date.  Issuing an FEIS at this time indicates that no such review has been undertaken, and the safety and security of D.C. residents will likely be put at risk by CSX’s proposed project.”

The Federal Highway Administration and DDOT have been reviewing the proposal and were expected to release the final environmental assessment last winter.  After the assessment is completed, the highway administration is expected to issue a decision on the project. If the project wins federal approval, CSX would then apply to DDOT for construction permits. At that point, the city would decide whether the project could proceed.

CSX said in a statement Friday that the company “looks forward to the release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement,” and “to continuing our ongoing discussions with the community about this 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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