The controversial Virginia Avenue tunnel project in Southeast Washington is getting its day in court Tuesday.
A District Court judge is expected to hear a petition for a preliminary injunction that would halt construction of the $170 million project, at least until the court reviews and rules on a lawsuit challenging the Federal Highway Administration’s decision to approve plans to reconstruct the 110-year-old rail tunnel.
The hearing comes as CSX Transportation embarks on site preparation for the reconstruction and expansion project, which received federal clearance last year.
Company executives say residents should expect to see some utility relocation, tree removal and fencing-off of the area in coming weeks. Excavation could begin as early as this spring, as soon as CSX receives permits from the D.C. Department of Transportation and other city agencies. The project is expected to be completed in 3
But opponents say they remain optimistic about the court’s intervention — their last resort to stop the project. The Committee of 100 on the Federal City, which serves as a watchdog on transportation issues, has built a case questioning the legality and transparency of the project’s federal environmental review process and says there were violations of federal and D.C. law.
In its lawsuit, the committee cites DDOT’s early commitment to the project. Before completion of the mandated National Environmental Policy Act review, the agency had agreed to let CSX take over the roads near the tunnel for the purpose of rebuilding it.
The committee and residents who oppose the construction say they hope a judge will grant their motion Tuesday to keep CSX from turning their community into a work zone before their lawsuit is heard.
“It makes much more sense to stop the construction now rather than letting this continue on,” said Maureen Harrington, a committee member and resident of Virginia Avenue SE. “I would think CSX would want to put this on hold, but I think they sort of feel that they have the foot in the door, and they want to get as far along as they can, hoping that will make it that much harder to stop it later. Of course, by then, some of the damage would be done.”
In November, the Federal Highway Administration gave CSX clearance to rebuild the aging rail tunnel. The decision came after a series of delays and in spite of raucous opposition from some neighbors. The federal environmental approval process took three years to complete.
CSX plans to demolish the 3,800-foot-long tunnel, beneath Virginia Avenue SE, from Second to 11th streets, and build twin tunnels that will be high enough to allow for the passage of double-stacked trains.
The tunnel’s single-track configuration has become a major bottleneck in the region’s rail network, and CSX says that modernizing the tunnel will not only help maintain the integrity of what is considered an important access point in the East Coast rail system, but also will allow it to handle expected increases in freight transportation.
“We are focused on building the tunnel,” Louis E. Renjel Jr., a CSX executive, said at a recent community meeting in which the rail company unveiled plans for the first 120 days of construction. While CSX has a team of lawyers working on the court case, he said, company officials have every confidence that the project will move forward.
DDOT has issued one permit to CSX, which allows for the temporary installation of equipment to obtain noise and vibration readings in the area, a DDOT spokesman said. Another permit is pending for tree removal within the CSX property limits, he said.
CSX officials said they expect excavation work to begin this spring.
Kirsten Oldenburg, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner who represents part of the area affected by the project, said she hopes the pending litigation won’t delay the project further. Just as some residents don’t want the construction to take place, others think it’s necessary and just want it to be over with, she said.
“The study is done. The results are done. It’s time to get it done,” Oldenburg said.