Plan to upgrade Virginia Avenue tunnel stalls — and holds back other development


The CSX train tracks that go underground at the tunnel near Garfield Park and H at Second Streets Southeast under the Southeast-Southwest Freeway is the site where the proposed construction would start on the Virginia Avnue Tunnel project. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
August 17

The Virginia Avenue Tunnel has flooded twice this year. On one occasion, it was closed for four hours, holding back freight trains and frustrating commuters on passenger trains using the District’s rail network.

The problems that ensued after the torrential storms on June 10 are a testament to how fragile the 110-year-old tunnel in Southeast Washington is and why it needs to be rebuilt, CSX Transportation officials say.

It is unclear, however, when and if a reconstruction plan will move forward. City officials — pressured by neighborhood residents who oppose the plan — are urging federal and D.C. transportation officials to postpone a decision that would give CSX the green light to build, at least until the D.C. Council reviews the plan this month.

Delaying a decision on the fate of the project means more frustration for a community that remains split over the plan even after years of debate. Meanwhile, the uncertainty surrounding the project threatens other development efforts in the community.

“We’ve been in a holding pattern for several years trying to determine [CSX’s] timeline and how the scope of their project will affect our development of our site,” said Pastor Mark Batterson of the National Community Church.

The church owns several properties facing Virginia Avenue SE, between Seventh and Eighth streets, and is waiting for a decision on the CSX project to proceed with its plan to build a mixed-used development that could include a coffeehouse and a performance space to serve the church’s growing membership and the larger Capitol Hill and Capitol Riverfront community.

“It’s been difficult to take the first step because we don’t know exactly what or when CSX will build and how that will affect us,” Batterson said.

The tunnel, beneath Virginia Avenue SE, from Second to 11th streets, is an increasingly divisive subject in the growing community about a mile from the U.S. Capitol. On one side are those who say that the 3,800-foot-long tunnel is an important access point in the Washington region’s rail system and that fixing its deteriorating condition is critical. On the other are those who say the city should look at moving the railway away from the residential neighborhood.

And an increasing number of residents who had remained quiet about the project are now voicing support, concurring with transportation officials, who have said all along that modernizing the tunnel is key to the efficiency of the region’s rail system.

“It will happen anyway,” said Paul Ghiotto, who lives near the eastern edge of the tunnel. “Let’s focus on getting the best deal for the community and protecting the community and getting this done as fast as possible.”

Ghiotto said he is concerned that more delays mean obstructing the redevelopment of parts Virginia Avenue SE and around the Barracks Row neighborhood where a developer had long been planning a mixed-use project at a former trolley barn known as the Blue Castle on Eighth Street SE.

The National Community Church has not taken a formal position on the tunnel project, but Batterson said that like other neighbors, the church is concerned about “dangers and inconveniences that could stretch into years.”

More important, a decision on the tunnel, whether it is favorable or not, would provide the church with some guidance on its plan to expand. The church’s theater, two blocks away, at 535 Eighth St., has four weekend services and is often at maximum capacity, Batterson said.

Some neighborhood residents are concerned about how the CSX plan will affect their quality of life — including increased noise and dust during construction, road closures, and problems with parking and access to their homes. A coalition of residents, many of whom live in new rowhouses facing the tunnel, fear that trains carrying crude oil will pass through the neighborhood — though CSX officials say shipments of crude through the District are rare.

But other residents note that the neighborhood, which is near the Navy Yard, lived with long-term construction during the building of Nationals Park and that growth in the community has boomed since the ballpark opened in 2008, with new housing, office and commercial space. They say it’s unreasonable to demand that the railroad move — and unlikely to happen.

“We have been talking for five years. What else is there to talk about?” said Bill Phillips, who lives on F Street SE, directly across from Garfield Park. “It is one of those things that is an inconvenience, but the best approach is to approve it and get it done with.”

The Federal Highway Administration, which has been leading a federal review of the project, issued a final environmental impact statement in June and was expected to release a record of decision on the project last month. But the agency, at the request of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), extended the 30-day comment period on that report to 60 days. That extension ended last week, but Norton has asked the agency to postpone the decision until Sept. 15, after the D.C. Council has held an oversight hearing on the project.

The Federal Highway Administration said last week that it plans to sign and issue the decision late this month or early September but is still reviewing Norton’s request.

If the agency rules in favor of the plan, CSX can request the permits it needs from the District, but some D.C. Council members have asked DDOT to not issue the permits pending an Aug. 26 council public hearing.

Dale Owen, who lives in a house fronting the tunnel, said at a recent meeting that neighbors are frustrated with the alternatives offered in the federal environmental review, saying they benefit only CSX.

“I’m a big fan and advocate of improving our infrastructure. I’m not necessarily a fan of expanding the capacity . . . for CSX at the residents’ expense,” he said. “I will not see any dividend from the expansion of CSX’s tunnel in front of my house.”

A 2007 study identified alternatives for rerouting freight trains from the District through Prince George’s and Charles counties, but those options would be costly — $4.3 billion to $5.3 billion — and would cause an outcry in the neighborhoods where new routes would be created. Maryland leaders opposed those approaches. The federal environmental review of the project concluded that building a new rail line to reroute freight trains was not a “cost effective solution to address the deficiencies of the existing Virginia Avenue Tunnel.”

Railroad officials say that waiting will only exacerbate problems with the aging tunnel, which they say is inadequate for modern freight capacity and has become a major bottleneck in their network. CSX wants to convert the tunnel’s single track to two tracks and allow room for double-stacked container trains. The company says the change would allow it to handle expected increases in freight transportation on the East Coast.

The final environmental impact statement backs a construction option that would replace the tunnel with two permanent tunnels.

Transportation leaders from across the region, including former DDOT director Terry Bellamy and former Maryland and Virginia transportation heads, have called the tunnel reconstruction crucial to improving the flow of rail traffic through the District and the area.

Although commuter trains don’t use the tunnel, when there is a problem that halts freight traffic, it affects commuter-rail access to and from Union Station. Virginia Railway Express trains, for example, cross the Long Bridge from Virginia and use the same tracks CSX freight trains do before heading to Union Station.

The tunnel plan is part of the National Gateway project, an $850 million initiative to improve the flow of freight-rail traffic in the eastern United States by increasing the use of double-stack trains. As part of the initiative, Virginia is contributing $24 million toward the Virginia Avenue Tunnel reconstruction. CSX is expected to pay most of the $168 million construction cost.

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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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