The Washington Post

Neighbors urge city to stand against Virginia Avenue Tunnel project in Southeast DC

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 15: 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 Ave. Tunnel project as seen Wednesday January 15, 2014 in Washington, DC. CSX wants to add a second track and have the tunnel deep enough to accommodate double-stacked container freight trains. People living in the neighborhood are concerned about an open trench where the trains would run while the tunnel is being built virtually in their front yard. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post) WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 15: 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 Ave. Tunnel project as seen Wednesday Jan. 15. CSX wants to add a second track and have the tunnel deep enough to accommodate double-stacked container freight trains. People living in the neighborhood are concerned about an open trench where the trains would run while the tunnel is being built virtually in their front yard. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Some D.C. residents on Wednesday urged the D.C. Council to take a stand against the proposed reconstruction of a 110-year-old rail tunnel in Southeast.

Citing safety concerns, residents of the Capitol Hill and Navy Yard neighborhoods told the council’s Committee of the Whole to take an affirming role to protect the health, safety and infrastructure interests of the District.

The council is considering a resolution to ask Congress to hold a public hearing on the proposed $200 million reconstruction of the tunnel that runs beneath Virginia Avenue SE, from Second to 11th streets.

CSX Transportation wants to convert the tunnel’s single track into a two-track configuration and allow overhead room for double-stacked container trains. The company says the tunnel is inadequate for modern freight capacity and is a major bottleneck in its rail network. The upgrade would allow it to handle expected increases in freight transportation on the East Coast.

The proposal, which has been in the works for years, has spurred an outcry among residents who live in a booming neighborhood of Southeast Washington adjacent to the tunnel.  In meetings with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and Mayor Vincent Gray (D) this year, residents have voiced similar concerns about the potential risk of a train derailment at a construction site that is within feet of homes, businesses, and parks.

“There is no room for error, and the risk is unacceptable,” James McPhillips, who owns a home along Virginia Avenue, said Wednesday, noting that under CSX’s construction plan, which could take at least three years, “larger and faster trains will be running through an open trench in a tight construction zone.” 

The D.C. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration are conducting an environmental review of the project and could release a final report this spring. After the assessment is completed, the federal agency is expected to issue a decision on the project and if CSX receives approval to proceed, DDOT would then need to issue construction permits.

CSX says the tunnel is showing signs of its age and needs to be replaced.

“Put simply, the Virginia Avenue Tunnel is nearing the end of its useful life, and must be replaced to maintain the flow of interstate commerce and improve infrastructure in the District,” Louis Renjel, a company executive, told the council.

The tunnel’s one track configuration causes a ripple effect of rail congestion in the region that impacts commuters and freight, he said.

“This is like having two lanes of road on either side of a one-lane bridge – it is a bottleneck. Freight trains wait to access the tunnel, causing freight and commuter rail backups onto the Long Bridge over the Potomac,” he said.  “If we eliminate the bottleneck, we improve the flow of commuter trains into and out of the District, making that service more reliable and timely.”

Proposals to close the tunnel and run the trains elsewhere would involve substantial impacts on other communities, traffic, and costs, CSX says.

Residents are urging the council to take steps to have a comprehensive study of the rail network in the city before the tunnel project proceeds, and to exercise its influence to deny construction permits when the project gets to that point.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said the council has no control over DDOT’s decisions and can’t tell the agency whether to issue a permit or not.

Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) said the council will do it what it can to have assurance that the residents of the District are protected.

“This is a very complex issue that involves serious matters on both sides,” Grosso said.  “I think the council does have a role to play here and I am hoping that this committee hearing can help exactly figure out what that is and how we can engage and help make this better for everybody.”

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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