The details of how the government will permit the owners of the 100-year-old Virginia Avenue tunnel, CSX Transportation, to reconstruct the train route will likely be finalized by the end of the summer. But before any decisions are issued, Navy Yard residents who live nearby want its owners and the involved government agencies to finally listen to their grievances, something they say hasn’t been done yet despite countless public hearings on the project.
About 200 people packed into a community meeting at the Capitol Skyline Hotel last night to grill representatives from CSX, the D.C. Department of Transportation, and the Federal Highway Administration about the construction project. 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, with the construction expected to last more than three years. 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 do not carry passengers, just cargo.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, outgoing Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, and Ward 6 Democratic nominee (and likely next Councilmember) Charles Allen were all in attendance at last night’s public meeting,
Residents have long said they don’t want trains running through the tunnel while it’s under construction and instead want them rerouted during the renovation period. But last month, the FHWA and DDOT issued a final environmental impact statement which recommended that CSX go about the construction without rerouting the trains. The agencies instead would have the trains run through the old tunnel while CSX builds a new tunnel adjacent to it. Once the new tunnel is complete, the plan is to knock down the old tunnel, have the trains run through the new one, and build another new tunnel where the old one used to be to allow for two-way traffic.
Rob Doolittle, a spokesman for CSX, says this plan would involve trains running through an open trench for approximately 230 feet, but that they’d never be operating in an open trench in front of residences. He says this option was developed in direct response to residents’ concerns about trains operating in an open trench near neighborhoods.
The environmental impact statement is currently under a 60-day review period. (The review period is typically 30 days, but Norton requested an extension from the U.S. Department of Transportation.) After that review period, the Record of Decision will be issued, which will allow CSX to obtain the necessary permits and begin construction.
But on Tuesday, residents tried to get more answers from the government agencies and CSX in the one of the last public meetings before the final decision comes in.
“You say you listened to the community, but you have not heard us,” resident Melissa Lee said. “You need to hear us and you need to listen harder.”
Before the meeting even started, detractors stood outside the Capitol Skyline Hotel protesting the whole construction project and calling it “rigged.” Residents say the outcome is predetermined because of a document tucked in the appendix of the environmental impact statement showing that DDOT granted CSX an occupancy permit nearly two years ago, which guaranteed the company the right-of-way at Virginia Avenue SE and nearby roads.
DDOT says this agreement was not for one specific construction method and will have no effect until the final Record of Decision is approved.
Among the residents’ other concerns at last night’s meeting was that there hasn’t been sufficient information released on the impact the construction project could have on air quality and subsequently children’s health. CSX says they have met EPA standards on this and will be monitoring air quality during construction.
“They owe these folks answers,” Ward 6’s Allen.
CSX concedes that constriction of the Virginia Avenue tunnel will be inconvenient to neighbors. At last night’s meeting, the company 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. When CSX announced it would be handing this money to the ANCs, David Garber, a commissioner for Navy Yard’s ANC 6D, said from the audience that “it is not the ANC’s responsibility to pay people off for you guys.”
During these community meetings, residents have repeatedly asked CSX to guarantee that it wouldn’t move hazardous materials through the tunnel during construction. CSX has long said it doesn’t typically move hazardous materials on these trains and meets all relevant federal laws. Resident Maureen Cohen Harrington asked CSX last night to enter into a public, legally binding contract with the neighborhood guaranteeing that it won’t transport these materials, but CSX didn’t agree to that.
“If you’re not doing it, and you have no intention [to transport hazardous materials,] why not enter into the agreement?” Harrington asked.
After the meeting Norton said she thought CSX was in fact listening, but said there was likely limitations to what the company was willing to concede to residents at the onset of this long planning period. She also acknowledged there was probably no way for the company to satisfy her constituents unless they rerouted the trains during construction.
“I don’t think [CSX] was ready for these type of residents who did this much research and close reading,” she said.
Correction: The post originally misidentified the west boundary of the tunnel. The tunnel currently runs from under 11th and L streets SE to 2nd Street and Virginia Avenue SE.
Photo by Perry Stein