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. 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 in what they say is virtually in their front yard. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council came out of summer recess Tuesday to hold a public hearing on the proposed reconstruction of a CSX rail tunnel that transportation officials say is a bottleneck in the East Coast rail network.

D.C. lawmakers, like neighbors of the 110-year-old tunnel in Southeast Washington, appear to be split about the project that has revived talks about rail safety and security in the city.

After six hours of discussion during which the council sought answers about freight rail rerouting options, rail security procedures and impacts on passenger rail,  it was unclear whether the panel would take any action to support or oppose the proposal.  It also was unclear if the council would be able to exert any influence on the project once it receives federal approval.

“The primary request that I am hearing is that the council votes to delays the issuance of the permits and I am trying to think of the legality of that,” said Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chair of the transportation committee. “Council as far as I can tell cannot interfere in particular permits.”

The tunnel proposal is under review by the Federal Highway Administration, and the agency is expected to issue a decision next month that could give CSX a green light to proceed. The rail company would then need to acquire permits from the D.C. Department of Transportation to begin construction. DDOT and CSX reached an agreement back in 2010 where the agency committed to issuing CSX the needed permits once the federal review is completed.

“If we sort of generically stated that no permits shall be issued for any rail project…until the completion of the rail study that may be possible,” Cheh said.

The Council has allocated funding for a comprehensive rail study that would provide an assessment of all rail service: passenger, commuter, and freight.  Some neighbors who oppose the CSX project have asked the council to find a way to stop the project until at least after the study is completed, and Tuesday some council members said they would support doing so so that the city would have a better understanding of the significance of the tunnel on the District’s rail network.

“I really think that it will be important to wait and to look at the comprehensive rail plan and see what it states, really understand it and then move forward from there,” Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) said.

But Grosso said he is torn between waiting for the study and concerns about holding up work on the aging tunnel.

“I am worried about this tunnel,” he said. “I also know that whatever construction is done there, it is going to be a real headache for anybody that lives in that immediate area and we have to figure out how to mitigate those issues.”

Because the tunnel is a critical piece of the rail network, interests on the project go beyond the city. Transportation officials say the tunnel, which has a one-track configuration, slows down commerce along the East Coast. CSX wants to restore the tunnel to two tracks and make the tunnel two feet taller to allow enough overhead space to run the double-stacked trains that are now standard in freight shipping across the country. Doing so would allow CSX to move more cargo using fewer trains.

CSX officials say rebuilding the tunnel is necessary to remedy growing structural problems. They also say that expanding the tunnel’s capacity is important if it is to handle expected increases in freight transportation on the East Coast.

But some residents have been pushing the city to stop the project. Already, their concerns have led to months of delays and pressure on the Federal Highway Administration to postpone, at least until Sept. 15, a decision that would determine if the project can move forward.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said delaying the project, if it needs to be done anyway, could hurt the city. He asked residents if there is a plan of expansion they would support. In most cases, the answer appeared to be no.

“Is this inevitable? If it is inevitable at the end of the day by delaying it we take a risk with the condition of the tunnel,” Wells said.

“I think that the rail study for the city is important, but I know that if this is going to happen anyway, the longer we delay it the greater economic impact on the city (and) the more people are impacted,” he said. “It is easy politically to delay things that we don’t want to do. The question is again, if this is going to be done, let’s get it done and get it done right, get it over and be sure it is the best project possible for the whole community.”

Wells said he also worries that not building the tunnel would potentially mean putting more trucks on the road to move goods.

Council members Tuesday also heard from residents who complained that the approval process for the project has lacked transparency. They also questioned CSX officials who said that not building the tunnel now would negatively impact freight commerce. Council members raised questions about rerouting options and safety and security.

During its testimony during the hearing, the Committee on the Federal City asked the Council to adopt legislation prohibiting the issuance of any permits for the project until the rail study is completed.

“We can’t let CSX bulldoze its will through the District’s regulations and harm D.C. residents,” said Monte Edwards, vice-chairman of the committee. “We need the Council’s rail study to inform the District’s rail policy decisions and the Council must act to preserve its authority. CSX cannot make our transportation decisions for us.”

Tuesday’s hearing was held by the Committee of the Whole and the Committee on Transportation and the Environment.  The council will receive public comments on the issue  until Sept. 9.