A little less than a mile from the U.S. Capitol, families living on Virginia Avenue SE may soon feel the unwanted effects of the Panama Canal’s expansion 2,000 miles away.
They live near a a 100-year-old rail tunnel that runs beneath Virginia Avenue from Second to 11th streets. CSX Transportation owns the tunnel, but it says the structure is too outdated for modern freight capacity and is a major bottleneck in its rail network.
This will soon become a huge headache for CSX when an expansion of the Panama Canal is complete in about 2014, increasing freight traffic on the East Coast.
CSX has to prepare for the influx, the company said, and proposes to install two rail tracks and allow overhead room for double-stacked containers. To do that, the company would have to rip out the tunnel and build a bigger one, requiring the staging of construction equipment a few dozen feet away from front doors along Virginia Avenue.
The proposal has upset dozens of residents along the street.
Laura Salmon lives near the tunnel. She is president of the Capitol Quarter Home Owners Association in a neighborhood bounded by Virginia and M Street to the north and south, and Second and Third streets to the east and west. She said she doesn’t mind the trains or the whistles. At some level, she finds them comforting.
As a girl growing up in New Jersey, Salmon said, she would sometimes have trouble falling asleep. On those nights, she said, she would hear a train whistle and find comfort knowing that someone nearby — the train operator — was awake, too.
But CSX’s proposal to expand the tunnel is ruining that quaint memory, Salmon said.
The neighborhood’s pastel-colored rowhouses stand about 100 feet south to the bulwark of the elevated Southeast Freeway. The freeway runs above Virginia Avenue and the rail tunnel runs below. It’s a tight squeeze for construction.
“We’re concerned about the vibration and the safety of having a permanent train tunnel closer to our homes,” Salmon said.
Construction could take Virginia Avenue out of service for years, residents said, although CSX has not released a specific construction timeline. Several residents say equipment would be staged within 20 feet of their front doors.
Under one proposal, CSX would run trains through an open trench, and that has more people worried.
Melissa Lee, another Virginia Avenue resident and a mother of 6-month-old twins, dreads the prospect of her children growing up next to an open trench with running freight. The project is more than a year away from starting, and her twins will be 4 or 5, maybe older, when the project ends.
“How can I let my kids live next to this and consider myself a good parent?” she asked.
She’s worried they might not be able to sleep, or will wander onto the construction site.
Many people grumbled that CSX should have redone the tunnel years ago, when fewer people lived in the area.
“We understand the community has changed dramatically over the last several years,” said Chip Dobson, CSX’s project coordinator for the tunnel.
Being responsible stewards of infrastructure requires the railroad to go in and upgrade, he said, adding: “This is one of those hundred-year-type projects.”
CSX has not finalized a construction plan, but doing nothing is a poor solution, said Stephen R. Flippin, director of federal and community affairs for CSX.
If CSX does not expand an antiquated tunnel, it will have to run more trains per day to meet demand, Flippin said. Over years, that could disrupt passenger rail travel because Amtrak, VRE and MARC use portions of CSX-owned tracks. An increase of freight traffic could cause congestion and, possibly, passenger delays.
CSX proposes to either build a second tunnel alongside the old one or place two tracks in the new tunnel.
The controversy is a collision between the nation’s need for modern infrastructure that can accommodate globalized trade and a neighborhood’s peace and quiet.
On May 14, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6D, which represents many residents along the stretch of Virginia Avenue, sent a letter to Mayor Vincent C. Gray, the D.C. Council and officials of the firm conducting the environmental analysis for CSX, asking that they consider either not rebuilding the tunnel or rerouting trains temporarily or permanently.
Reroutes had been a concept proposed by CSX, but a week later, on May 21, it rejected the idea. Dobson said reroutes were not logistically feasible. One option was to reroute through Union Station, but the company would only be allowed two trains per day. The other choice was to reroute through Norfolk Southern’s line in rural Virginia and Maryland, or lay new track through Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a proposal backed by the National Capital Planning Commission.
“Given the geography of the CSX railroad, you’re adding some multiples of hundreds of miles for each train,” Dobson said.
David Garber, a commissioner for ANC 6D, said he and his neighbors wanted the railroad to retain some rerouting options. “It’s clear that the concepts that they kept are ones that benefit CSX the most,” he said.
Brad Pine has lived on South Carolina Avenue SE near Garfield Park for nine years. The park sits at the opening of the tunnel, on the other side of the freeway from Virginia Avenue.
“I think that there are other options other than expanding the capacity of freight trains through the city,” Pine said. “If it were to happen, the idea of 31 / 2 years of open-trench construction and running trains back and forth, it’s a difficult thing to get your head around.”