Virginia Avenue Tunnel's western portal from New Jersey Avenue SE
Virginia Avenue Tunnel's western portal from New Jersey Avenue SE

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A citizens’ group focusing on development will file suit today challenging the federal government’s approval of a controversial plan to reconstruct the more-than-100-year-old Virginia Avenue tunnel, owned by CSX Transportation.

Last week, the Federal Highway Administration approved construction of the tunnel based on the findings of an environmental impact statement that took years to complete. The group, the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, says that decision was unlawful and problematic, and it wants the court to reconsider the validity of the impact statement.

CSX wants to widen and deepen the 4,000-foot tunnel to allow for double-stacked freight trains and a second track for two-way traffic. The tunnel runs from under 11th and L streets SE to 2nd Street and Virginia Avenue SE and provides a bypass around Union Station. The trains don’t carry passengers, just cargo. The $170 million project could take more than three years to complete in what is now a busy, residential neighborhood.

The nearby Navy Yard residents have long said—-in many, many packed community meetings—-they don’t want trains to run in an open trench while the project is under construction. But the FHWA has allowed the agencies to do just that: Once the new tunnel is complete, the plan is to knock down the old tunnel, have trains run through the new one, and build another adjacent tunnel to allow for eventual two-way traffic.

The Committee of 100 argues that District Department of Transportation wrongfully gave CSX approval for parts of the project before the environmental review had been conducted and the actual statement doesn’t address the safety and security problems the project will pose. It also argues that this decision doesn’t even have to be made now, given that the environmental study says the current tunnel has “decades” left of use.

“This decision is unlawful, premature and problematic,” Committee of 100 Vice President Monte Edwards said in a statement. “The Record of Decision fails to address the severe safety and security impacts the proposed project will have on the immediate community and on Capitol Hill, the constraint on the expansion of passenger and commuter rail service in the District, and the pre-approval by DDOT of the project before any environmental review had been conducted.”

The group will also file a motion in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to prohibit any further action until the court rules on whether the environmental review violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, and D.C. law.

When FHWA gave approval to the project last week, CSX said it would work with the community on the next phase of the project.

“While this decision is the end of the Federal environmental review process, it is just the beginning of a new phase of CSX’s relationship with the community,”Louis E. Renjel, Jr., vice president of strategic infrastructure initiatives for CSX, said in a statement. “Input from residents shaped many features of this project and we are appreciative of their involvement.  We are committed to doing this project the right way; safely, respecting our neighbors and working closely with residents and businesses to minimize impacts and to ensure that they are informed about construction plans.”

In the past, CSX has conceded that the construction of the tunnel could be inconvenient to neighbors, though it insists it will pose no safety risks. The company has said it would provide residents of “front row property” to the construction site $500 per month for 42 months to cover any incidentals. (Residents referred to these “front row” houses as homes on the “front line.”) If any of these homeowners have to sell their homes for an unexpected reason—like if they’re in the military and being transferred—they’ll be eligible for compensation of up to $75,000 dollars at closing.

Capper Senior Center, an affordable senior housing complex located right near the construction site, will be given $250,000 to “offset temporary inconvenience related to construction and to support additional community enhancements.”

And ANC 6B and 6D will each be given $250,000 to be distributed as they see fit.

Photo by Matt’ Johnson via Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0