Federal Highway Administration

Since the June release of a final review of the proposed reconstruction of the Virginia Avenue Tunnel in Southeast Washington, opponents of the project appear to have gained some momentum.   The document, which backs the upgrade of the aging rail tunnel, was one of the last steps CSX Transportation needed to move from a federal approval process to construction.

But since June, public pressure has led the Federal Highway Administration and the D.C. Department of Transportation to extend the public review period of the document and hold another public meeting next week where residents can comment on the final environmental impact statement. The document lays out a preferred construction process that the agencies reviewing the project say balances CSX Transportation’s need to reconstruct the 110-year-old single-track tunnel and neighbors’ concerns.

The D.C. Council announced this week that it will hold another oversight hearing on the project “because there is significant public interest in this project, yet there remain outstanding questions to be answered,” before the issuance of permits.

Many neighbors in the Navy Yard area in Southeast oppose CSX’s plan for the tunnel that runs beneath Virginia Avenue SE, from Second to 11th streets. They have sought the help of city and federal officials to fight it and the upcoming meetings are viewed as good platforms to continue to make their case.

“This will finally be an opportunity to explore the many questions that we have raised about CSX’s proposal, including the inherent danger of trains running through a partially open construction trench for many years,”Jennifer McPhillips, a resident and member of a coalition of residents opposing the project said of the upcoming council hearing.  The $170 million project could last more than three years.

Opponents say they are concerned about safety during the construction period of the project, and fear that once the project is completed CSX will increase the transportation of crude oil and other hazardous materials through the area.

CSX says it rarely transports crude oil through the District are unusual and does not carry hazardous substances such as compressed flammable gases and toxic and radioactive materials through the city.  The company says it has no intention to increase crude shipments through the tunnel.

Transportation officials say the tunnel, which is an important piece of the region’s rail infrastructure, needs the upgrade to keep up with modern freight capacity and handle expected increases in freight transportation on the East Coast.

The project has being under consideration for years and the progress last month on the environmental review brought it closer to construction. After last month’s release of the final environmental impact statement, the Federal Highway Administration is expected to issue a final decision on the project.   But at the request of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the federal agency and DDOT agreed to give residents another month to review the document and one more meeting before the decision is released.

CSX says it is ready to proceed to construction this year. The company has clearance from DDOT to take over the road it needs for the construction. But residents say they hope the City Council would put a stop to CSX’s plans by requiring DDOT to deny any other permits until the city conducts a comprehensive rail study.

Here are details of the upcoming meetings:

  • The D.C. Council Committee of the Whole and Committee on Transportation and the Environment are holding the oversight hearing on Tuesday, Aug. 26, at 12 p.m. in the Council Chamber.
  • The Federal Highway Administration and DDOT meeting on the final draft of the environmental impact statement is Thursday, July 31, at the Capitol Skyline Hotel from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.