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The densely populated Navy Yard neighborhood barely resembles the industrial district it was just a couple decades ago. But there is at least one major remnant of its  past: The Virginia Avenue Tunnel, an operating rail track for freight trains that runs through the Navy Yard and Capitol Hill areas.

Now, the owners of the more than 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. The 4,000-foot tunnel is due for construction anyway, and having two-way operations would eliminate a traffic choke point there.

But neighborhood residents are taking a hard line against the construction project, expected to last more than three years, fearing the environmental and safety hazards it would pose to the residential community.

The tunnel runs from under 15th and M streets SE to 2nd Street and Virginia Avenue SE and provides a bypass around Union Station.

“I’m not going to sit around and watch the community get torn up now that it’s been built up,” says Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who led a community meeting with residents and CSX leaders Saturday.

More than 100 residents attended the meeting at the Capper Senior Apartment, which would be directly next to parts of the construction site, to speak out against the tunnel expansion and ask representatives from CSX, the District Department of Transportation, and the Federal Highway Administration questions. As of now, the company’s proposed plan calls for the trains to keep operating while the construction takes place.

If the project does get the necessary approval from the city and the FHWA, residents, at the very least, want the trains to be rerouted so they aren’t running through an open construction site. The trains will be carrying some hazardous materials, and the concern is that hazmats and a construction site could make for a dangerous combination. The company says the expansion would be used to transport more consumer goods, not hazmats. (When Norton asked company reps whether the trains would be carrying hazardous materials, they said it was more complicated than a yes or no answer.)

“They have selected the most dangerous option possible,” said James McPhillips, a Navy Yard resident. “We want a more reasonable, safe option.”

Last week, a rail car full of wood caught fire after traveling through the tunnel, which didn’t ease anyone’s fears.

Representatives from CSX tried to assure residents that the construction would be safe, but said they were unable to reveal exactly which materials they would be transporting because of environmental laws. The company said it has successfully done a similar construction project in an urban part of Pittsburgh.

“Our goal in all of this is to show that we are partners in the community,” a CSX rep said.

But residents, many of whom carried signs that said “CSX Plan Ignores Kids Health,” were not satisfied, and said the company was citing faulty studies and not providing honest answers.

“If this were in Georgetown it would not be built,” said resident John Short. “This is a supreme example of environmental racism.”

Norton said she would request a congressional oversight hearing on the tunnel. Ward 6 D.C. Councilmember (and mayoral candidate) Tommy Wells, who was also in attendance, said to loud cheers: “I want the trains rerouted permanently. If that’s not going to happen, we have to do this in a way that’s best for the health and welfare of the community.”

Michael Hicks, an environmental engineer for FHWA said the 6th Street and 8th Street SE exits from the nearby freeway would be closed for at least some of the construction.

There is no firm timeline for when the necessary permits will or won’t be granted, but Faisal Hameed of DDOT says that his department, which does not have final approval on the matter, is scheduled to give its recommendation in the next couple of months.

Photo by Perry Stein

Correction: Due to an editing error, this story initially used the wrong abbreviation for the Federal Highway Administration. It is abbreviated FHWA, not FHA.