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Navy Yard residents still unequivocally don’t want the the city to give a complex Virginia Avenue Tunnel construction project the go-ahead, and last night, hundreds of neighbors came out to let Mayor Vince Gray know just how horrible they think the project is.

The 4,000-foot Virginia Avenue Tunnel is an operating rail track for freight trains that runs through the Navy Yard and Capitol Hill area. Now the owners of the 100-year-old tunnel, CSX Transportation, want to widen and deepen it to allow for double-stacked freight trains and a second track for two-way traffic.

“What I’m asking you, Mayor Gray, please do not let D.C. be the guinea pig for CSX,” resident Claire Schaefer Oleksiak said at the meeting, expressing widespread concern that the company wants to continue operating trains through the tunnel during the construction period in a densely populated urban area.

The residents’ concerns about this project aren’t new: They don’t think CSX has any experience doing this sort of project in a city, and they fear the environmental and safety hazards a three-to-six-years-long construction project would pose. At the very least, they want the trains to be re-routed while the tunnel is under construction.

Gray facilitated the meeting and took  what he referred to as “copious notes” throughout. He didn’t say much about the project itself, only promising that the city would never sign on to a project that would endanger lives: “There’s no way we would be involved in a project like that.”

The trains running through the tunnel all convey freight, not passengers. When residents questioned the materials the trains would carry, specifically if they would be carrying crude oil—-the oil a train in Canada was carrying in July when it exploded and killed dozens of people—-Gray called up a CSX exec to answer.

Skip Elliott, vice president of public safety, health and environment at CSX, said there would be no “unit trains” with crude oil going through the tunnel. When the meeting attendees screamed he was lying, he clarified that while there would be no unit trains—-or a group of trains that typically carry a single commodity—-there would be some rail cars that would carry crude.

At this point, there is no firm timeline for when DDOT or the FHWA will give their recommendations for the project.

Ward 6 council candidates Darrel Thompson and Charles Allen attended the meeting, and Thompson called the issue crucial. As residents said throughout the meeting, Navy Yard is finally developing and attracting families and business establishments to the area. This project, which they argue provides no benefits to the community, threatens to ruin that progress, neighbors believe.

Tommy Wells, the current Ward 6 councilmember who is running for mayor against Gray, was not at last night’s meeting, but attended a November meeting with Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton and declared that he wants the trains rerouted permanently.

Photo by Perry Stein