Pressure mounts on city over proposed CSX railroad tunnel project in Southeast D.C.

(Katherine Frey/ The Washington Post ) - 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 Avenue Tunnel project.

(Katherine Frey/ The Washington Post ) - 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 Avenue Tunnel project.

The proposed reconstruction of a railroad tunnel in Southeast has residents of the thriving Navy Yard community asking the District government to help kill the project.

CSX Transportation says the century-old rail 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.

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Concern over proposed rail tunnel reconstructio n.
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Concern over proposed rail tunnel reconstructio n.

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CSX wants to convert the tunnel’s single track to a two-track configuration and allow overhead 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, in part stemming from the Panama Canal expansion scheduled for 2015.

The plan would require that the 3,800-foot-long tunnel be ripped out, and it could take three to six years to complete the project — at a cost of $168 million to $208 million. An open trench would accommodate construction activities and train operations just steps away from the front doors of residences along Virginia Avenue.

“With an open trench, we have concerns about how people are going to get around,” said Natalie Skidmore, who lives in a Virginia Avenue rowhouse with her husband and two young children. “We are going to lose parking spots, trees and access.”

The Federal Highway Administration and the D.C. Department of Transportation are reviewing the proposal and could release a final environmental assessment early this year. After the assessment is completed, the Federal 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 can approve or deny CSX’s request.

“The tunnel is an aging tunnel,” Steve Flippin, CSX’s director of federal affairs, told residents Thursday at a community meeting with Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). “We are talking about a 110-plus-year-old tunnel, so there are significant issues that are ongoing with that tunnel, and it is going to be replaced at some point.”

Nearly 400 residents attended the meeting to voice opposition to the project and lay out their concerns about its impact on public safety, the environment and access. They asked Gray to oppose the plan and urge DDOT to deny approval. Gray said he wanted to listen to the concerns, and at times he served as intermediary between the upset residents and CSX officials. He assured residents that if the project was to move forward, conditions would be imposed during the permitting process to ensure it was completed in a safe and timely manner.

“There is no way that we are going to allow people’s safety and security concerns to be compromised,” Gray told the packed room.

A draft of the environmental impact assessment released last summer describes three building options, all of which involve an open trench for construction and trains running through.

Under the plan, Virginia Avenue SE would be temporarily closed between Second and Ninth streets SE. Several adjacent streets also could be affected. The project might also include the closure of the Interstate 695 off-ramp at Sixth Street and the on-ramp at Eighth Street SE. Street parking in the area would be affected.

Several community and environmental groups oppose the plan and have sought the help of city and federal officials to fight it. The Environmental Protection Agency said in a letter to the FHWA and DDOT that its review found “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.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) is hosting a meeting with EPA on Saturday to discuss those concerns.

Flippin, the CSX representative, said the construction would not cut off access for pedestrians and cyclists. But residents say they worry not only about access to their homes, but also air quality problems and increases in noise and vibration. Others say they are most concerned about freight trains carrying crude oil passing through an open trench and active construction site.

Several recent accidents in North America have raised concerns about the safety of oil being shipped by rail. A train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in a small town in Quebec last summer, killing 47 people. In December, hundreds of people were evacuated after a mile-long train, also carrying crude oil, derailed and exploded in Casselton, N.D.

Skip Elliott, vice president for public safety, health and environment at CSX, said Thursday that the type of trains involved in the Quebec and North Dakota incidents, which often have 100 cars carrying the same commodity, do not pass through the District.

“Although we have our accidents, we work very, very hard to be as safe as we can,” Elliott said.

Michael Hicks, an environmental engineer with the FHWA, said at a November community meeting that the agency is carefully reviewing the case and takes safety seriously.

“Don’t get yourself all in a tizzy thinking that there is going to be a tragedy that is going to take place out there. . . . Don’t assume the worst-case scenario,” Hicks told the residents. “We are examining the project and we are doing everything we can to make sure that never takes place.”

Florence Copeland, 68, who lives at the Arthur Capper Senior Center at Fifth Street and Virginia Avenue SE, said she fears construction will pose major disruptions for the elderly residents. Copeland said some seniors are worried that they would need to keep their windows closed for the duration of the project.

“We may have some air quality issues, and we need to protect ourselves,” she said.

The tunnel project is proposed in an area of Southeast near Nationals Park that has seen a stream of development over the last decade. The area is thriving with new city offices, mixed-income housing and open spaces such as Canal Park, which opened just over a year ago with a 10,000-square-foot ice skating rink.

“The difference is these projects have brought benefits,” said Helen Douglas, a resident of the Arthur Capper Senior Center, which would be directly across from the construction. “But tearing open Virginia Avenue for six city blocks . . . raises unreasonable environmental and health risks beyond typical construction problems, with no beneficial returns for the community.”

Some residents say they fear the estimated three to six years of construction will lower home values and slow growth in the neighborhood. A Whole Foods is planned for 800 New Jersey Ave. SE, near the south portal of the tunnel at Second Street SE. It is to be part of a complex of four buildings that eventually will include 1,200 residential units, three blocks from the Navy Yard Metro station.

“We really thought the neighborhood was up and coming. It had a beautiful, inviting and diverse community,” said James McPhillips, 31, an attorney who moved to the Navy Yard area with his wife just over a year ago, hoping to start a family at their new rowhouse on Virginia Avenue. “This project has the possibility of destroying that.”

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