Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) wants the Federal Highway Administration to expedite the release of an environmental assessment on the proposed reconstruction of the Virginia Avenue Tunnel in Southeast Washington.
In a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Norton said residents who live near the tunnel have long been waiting to get answers to questions about whether and how the controversial project will proceed.
The proposed plan for the 110-year-old tunnel that runs beneath Virginia Avenue SE, from Second to Eleventh streets, is under review by the D.C. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. The agencies are expected to release a final environmental impact statement —and a decision— of the project this spring.
Norton said the process has taken too long, noting the draft of the document was released in July. Other government officials have reached out to Federal Highway Administration requesting that the process be prioritized and completed, Norton said in the letter sent March 31. In 2013, she said, Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner asked the federal agency for a status report and were told that the project would have a Record of Decision by December 2013.
“That did not happen. They followed up and were told the ROD would be completed by February, but that month also saw no action,” she wrote. “I ask that you help ensure the prompt release of the Final (Environmental Impact Statement) for the Virginia Avenue Tunnel project so that the surrounding community is aware of the preferred alternative, any impacts this project may have on them, and any mitigation and benefits to the surrounding community.”
CSX wants to install two rail tracks and create more overhead room for double-stacked container trains. During the construction, the rail tunnel would need to be ripped out and trains would continue to pass through the area. The draft of the environmental impact statement describes three building options and says structural problems at the tunnel require increasingly more frequent inspections and maintenance to keep rail operations safe.
Neighbors and some community groups have expressed opposition to the plan. The Committee of 100 on the Federal City, which advocates for historic preservation and serves as a watchdog on transportation issues, has called for a revised Environmental Impact Statement on project citing problems with the document’s draft.
“It is incomplete, contains false statements and is biased in favor of the proposed multi-year, open trench, continued-freight-traffic project, ignoring existing low-impact alternative rail routes,” Monte Edwards, the group’s vice chair, said in comments to the Federal Highway Administration and DDOT.
Neighbors in Navy Yard and Capitol Hill say they worry about living next to an open trench during the construction, which could last more than three years. Residents also say they worry about impacts on air quality, increased noise and vibrations and access for residents whose homes are on Virginia Avenue SE.
CSX officials say the tunnel is a major bottleneck in its East Coast rail network and needs the improvements to handle projected increases in freight transportation on the East Coast. CSX says it will pay for the project, which is estimated to cost up to $200 million.
Once the Federal Highway Administration releases the final environmental assessment, the agency is expected to issue a decision on the project. If the project wins federal approval, CSX would then apply to DDOT for construction permits. Neighbors have been urging the city to deny that request when and if it comes to that point.