City Desk

Navy Yard: No New Tunnel, Please, We’re Residents


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. 

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  • doglover82

    Thank you Congresswoman Norton for standing up for your residents and for what is right! This project will have no benefit on the District and simply allows CSX to carry more hazardous freight through our city! Their proposed construction will cripple any sort of economic development in the Navy Yard and is dangerous for everyone!

  • MB

    The highway exits would likely be closed not for PART of the project as this article says, but for the DURATION. Michael Hicks said (direct quote from the Norton meeting): "They're going to have to close the Interstate two exit points on the Interstate, 6th and 8th St I believe, for the duration of the project...So that's why I'm involved." I hope he's wrong and doesn't know what he's talking about (although non-mastery of the details of the project you're personally overseeing is problematic), but NO ONE present from DDOT or CSX stepped in to correct him. There was ample opportunity for them to do this.

    The EPA, local historic preservation societies, the Sierra Club, city planning committees, and hazmat and acoustics experts have all criticized the CSX plan for omissions, blatant errors, and witholding important information to the public. Until the hundreds of problems with this project are properly addressed, the only option for the city is to choose the "no build" option.

    See or dcsaferail on facebook for more information.

  • Bryan

    Super minor correction/point: FHA = Federal Housing Administration; FHWA = Federal Highways Administration, which is the relevant party in this article.

  • Ragnar

    Concur with MB's comment - Hicks (the rep from the Federal Highway Administration) said that the 6th Street AND 8th Street exits off of the freeway would be closed for the DURATION OF THE PROJECT - up to six (6) YEARS!!!!

    Also - thank you Rep. Norton for standing up for the Navy Yard community and against an outside entity seeking to railroad this neighborhood.

    If you live on the Hill, if you like going to concerts and Yards Park, if you love our Nats and going to the games - it's time to get involved and start fighting this project.

  • purps

    Thank goodness SOMEONE is finally standing up to this ill-conceived and unnecessary project. Between the potential environmental/safety effects, as well as the clear-cut effect on both residents' and non-residents' commutes and daily lives, this entire project needs thorough examination by both the DC Council and the US Congress.

  • Jim Dougherty

    They should extend the current tunnel (now under Capitol Hill) to the entire downtown -- this means SW.
    Tunneling is not that big a deal; metrorail is tunneled under both rivers and most of downtown.

  • Fred

    Good that the City Paper reporter quoted the evasive CSX answer to Rep Norton's question and caught CSX in one of its major lies about the project, the claim that they will not be transporting hazardous materials in the re-built tunnel and during construction. The well-informed residents at this terrific meeting can cite many other evasions, lies and distortions downplaying dangers and community impacts, in the project documents they have pored over at length. Another major lie [railroads cannot help it, it seems] is that CSX is forbidden by law from letting residents know the hazardous hazardous cargoes they are now transporting, and the Worst Case Scenarios of those. These scenarios are the language of US Community Right to Know laws and practice in emergency preparedness. CSX and the other railroad corporations continue to keep the at-risk public in the dark, a dark that is broken periodically only by a tragic freight rail disaster like the crude oil derailment, fires and explosions that killed 47 residents in the tiny Quebec town of Lac-Megantic last July.

  • Anya

    Actually, Hicks said that the 6th St and 8th Street exits off of 395/695 would be "closed for the duration of the project," which is a 180 degrees from what the draft Environmental Impact Statement says. When were they going to tell us? Surely at the last minute because they know that closing any of these exits would be a total nonstarter. Residents, commuters, Nats fans - tens of thousands use these exits every day. Here is the video clip - - where Michael Hicks of the Federal Highway Administration tells about the closure, and the CSX reps are all just quiet as mice.

  • Rob

    For the quote about the "DURATION OF THE PROJECT" follow this link to the actual video of it:

  • Fred

    Good that the City Paper reporter quoted the evasive CSX answer to Rep Norton's question and caught CSX in one of its major mis-statements about the project, the claim that they will not be transporting hazardous materials in the re-built tunnel and during construction. The well-informed residents at this terrific meeting can cite many other evasions, mis-statements and distortions downplaying dangers and community impacts, in the project documents they have pored over at length. Another major mis-statement is that CSX is forbidden by law [they never cite the exact section that supposedly does this] from letting residents know the hazardous materials cargoes they are now and will be transporting, and the Worst Case Scenarios of those. As the national Association of American Railroads states in its Circular OT-55-N, the railroads may grant local officials the privilege of informing the public of such risks. These scenarios are the very "language" of the two major US Community Right to Know laws [1986 and 1990] and necessary for any serious effort in emergency preparedness. CSX and the other railroad corporations continue to keep the at-risk trackside public in the dark, a dark that is broken periodically only by a tragic freight rail disaster like the crude oil derailment, fires and explosions that killed 47 residents in the tiny Quebec town of Lac-Megantic last July.

  • Delphi

    Residents do have a say on what goes on in their communities, but they are NOT the subject matter experts (and should stop acting like they are.)

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  • Sally M

    Folks who are worried about the dangers posed by freight trains are fighting to keep their access to a freeway?!! Does anyone else see the hypocrisy here? If you're worried about the health of your kids (which I am; I live one block away), push for the safest possible full expansion of the freight system and the phase-out of the freeway.

    To address climate change, we must reduce our reliance on individual modes of transport, whether commercial or personal. And let's stop burning coal at the Capitol Power Plant, too.

  • Aaron Z.

    Re: Fred - if CSX plans on carrying hazmat trains through the Virginia Ave tunnels, then they already are now. Basically any train on CSX tracks that's going from north east of DC to south of DC uses the Virginia Ave. tunnel.

    Re: Jim Dougherty - a several mile tunnel wouldn't be an option since CSX uses diesel locomotives - you'd need an insanely expensive ventilation system that would basically pump diesel exhaust fumes into the neighborhoods above (not an improvement, and in many ways worse).

    That said, I don't see the need for both widening and lowering the tunnel. One of the two is probably worth it, but once you can handle double-stacks, you can cut the number of trains a decent amount (not quite in half since not all go to the same places).

  • Keep Trains Moving

    This project needs to be built. There is no other route for freights through the mid-Atlantic across the Potomac. If Navy Yard residents want to kill the project, how about they pay for an entirely new freight route across the Potomac? Only billions of dollars there. NIMBYs.

  • SW,DC

    Has CSX committed to fixing the tracks with underpasses on major roads like 4th and 7th? Those look horrible and CSX should AT LEAST commit to beautifying those.

  • NM

    What do you think CSX transports right now? Sunshine and happiness? You guys decided to live next to an old active rail line the clearly needed work. I would rather CSX get a tunnel in place that greatly reduces the risk of accidents and allows for shorter trains by allowing double stacking.

  • Rhet

    All these residents don't know a thing about what it takes for the railroad to increase efficiency of their operations. Typical mindsets of people who don't even research anything and just automatically jump on the bandwagon. All they really want is any opportunity to improve the economy to just stay out of their neighborhoods.

  • david vartanoff

    None of the complaining persons were even born when this rail route was originally constructed. (is this like people who only "discovered" an airport after they moved next door?) Upgrading it is a benefit for ANYONE who ever purchases or uses any products carried through that tunnel.

  • Mike Madden

    Good catch, Bryan -- now corrected.

  • Paul B

    As a resident of the Navy Yard area, I'm sorry I missed this meeting. I fully support the CSX project.

    Yes, the construction period will be inconvenient for some, but understand that this is a critical transportation corridor that serves to make our economy more competitive, and that the project will make the connection even more efficient, reducing the volume of freight that must travel on the public roads at much greater cost and risk.

    The fears expressed by other area residents are misplaced; the health and environmental consequences of increased reliance on trucks far outweigh the perceived risks associated with the 3 year tunnel construction project.

    I hope those opposed to this project reconsider that position next time they are stuck in traffic on 95 or 81.

  • Arthur Sherman

    If the rail line is closed, then the goods they now carry will be transport by trucks, through your neighborhood and on the Beltway, where they mix with auto traffic. Every morning on WTOP there are reports of crashes on the interstates around DC. Is that what you want? As for hazardous materials--this is the stuff that is part of living in an advanced industrial society. Yes there are occasional rail crashes, but rail transport is much safer and more fuel efficient than trucks.

  • 17BobTrey0

    "What do you think CSX transports right now? Sunshine and happiness?"

    NM seems to be one of the few people who gets it. The NIMBYists who's stalled, protested and impeded development in this town have pulled out all the left-wing canards like "environmental racism" and "think of the children"

    Guess when you have a cushy federal job, drive a Prius and never worked a trade you can oppose projects like this. Otherwise there are a lot of tradesmen who'd like a shot to work at a giant project like this.

  • Fred

    Aw, don't we all believe that CSX suits [corporate reps] who show up to manage spirited community meetings are just the Sweetest guys and brave Truth-tellers about their hazmat cargo risks to DC residents, no matter the impact on their CSX bottom line or their salaries?

    Just wanted to see if this gets approved for publication by "moderation" officials at City Paper since my real comments were not.

  • Fred

    Please withdraw this final comment, as if was based on not seeing that in fact my previous comments had survived "moderation". Thanks.

  • MB

    @Arthur, I've heard that line from CSX. A major critique of the project is that CSX has dismissed the option of temporary re-routing options on existing tracks, which would at least minimize construction dangers. That's a fair ask from the community and would allow freight to keep moving.

    Also it is NOT a given that DC must have hazardous materials shuttled through it, and DC has tried to keep them out before--there's NIBMY, and then there's national security. The VAT is in a unique location, mere blocks from the Capitol Building and irreplaceable historic structures. Recognizing the dangers to a politically sensitive area in 2005, the DC Council passed emergency legislation that imposed a ban on hazardous material shipments and required them to be rerouted. Although CSX fought it and it was later overturned, the ruling was upheld in an April 2005 federal court ruling where the court stated that "the local jurisdiction has a right to protect its citizens and property when the federal government has not acted." Leaders advocating for and acting on behalf of public safety is what the Navy Yard is asking for and what we should expect as DC residents.

  • Helen

    Last night, a CSX freight car derailed in Willard Ohio, and leaked flammable liquid in a rail yard which led to the release of styrene monomer--"highly flammable" chemical into the air. Roughly 500 people were ordered to evacuate their homes after the spill was reported to the police. This incident comes on the back of local problem when a CSX freight car had a fire coming out of the VAT on November 17. Their derailment record for 2012 was 221, cannot imagine the record for 2013.
    Why wouldn't you want to reroute trains out of the city to decrease the proximity of such risk? Our economy would not be sacrificed, just the company's profit line would be reduced a bit in the name of the health, safety and security of this community and city. NO BUILD is the solution

  • Arthur Sherman

    Rerouting rail traffic is not so easy. For a number of reasons (many of them short sighted--e.g. federal subsidies to highways), many of the alternate rail lines were abandoned decades ago. For example, the line north from Baltimore to York, PA, the alternate line across the Alleghenies west of Cumberland, etc. -- gone. If freight traffic were to be rerouted away from DC it would have to go through Manassas to Front Royal, to Hagerstown, then down along the Susquehanna--a circuitous route, and what would the residents along those lines think? Not even sure those lines have the capacity.

    I always get a chuckle when I see those "nuclear free zone" signs in Garrett Park and Takoma Park -- don't they know what is carried by rail through their towns? (BTW, I live very close to that line and I also commute to work on MARC. The nearby presence of the line was the main reason I bought the house I live in.) I agree that your neighborhood is very nice, but the materials that went into the construction of those beautiful buildings had to get there somehow. Also your trash has to be carried away somehow -- the best way is on rail.

    At the risk of being repetitive, do an experiment: listen to WTOP, and count how many times Bob Marbourg uses the phrase "overturned tractor-trailer."

  • Observer777

    Railroad has been there since 1872. Far longer than these residents. Don't like it? Move!

    And that "environmental racism" one trick pony? Just another African in America "I wanna git paid" scam.

  • double income no money

    Gotta wonder if CSX is behind some of the comments here.

  • Nathaniel P.

    Expanding rail train tunnel dimensional height capacity and number of parallel rail lines of intercity rail through DC is an extremely smart idea for DC, Virginia, and Maryland, and the US North East and South East, emphasizing smart growth. If there are major concerns with a specific such expansion proposal, it requires much greater specifics about why anyone should oppose such long term smart growth, and what proposals would both expand essential rail capacity, and address any thoughtful criticisms.

    If anything, an improved proposal with eventually 3 rail lanes of rail traffic, (adding 2 lanes of rail traffic) is the better long term idea for reliable passenger and high speed rail, even if only one rail lane is added at a time, but built to be compatible with eventually having 3 rail lanes, to minimize construction costs and risks at each step. A 2nd lane provides essential two direction traffic capacity, and a 3rd lane provides reliability of the corridor, permitting extensive maintenance to any of any the 3 lanes of tracks without disrupting 2 way traffic.

    Generally for US downtown cities nationwide, adding a second lane is mandatory, and increasing tunnel height (AAR Plate H or bigger) for all common big dimension commercial train traffic such as moving most big rail cars, e.g. autoracks, from the US South East (e.g North Carolina to Baltimore for export), or reverse for import, is the type of current rail bottleneck through DC and the US east coast.

    The greatly expanded tunnel (height and lanes) could be used for air cargo on high speed rail, bypassing Union Station and the tunnel under the US Congress, connecting NYC, Newark NJ, Hartford CT, Toronto, Hamilton ON, to Atlanta, Columbia SC, Miami FL, paving the way for expanded high speed rail passenger train speeds.

    The greatly expanded rail tunnel could be used for new Airport Express trains from Virginia to BWI Airport, bypassing DC Union Station (and the tunnel under US Congress and the US Supreme Court,) with stops in Alexandria VA, and Crystal City VA, and L'Enfant Plaza (connecting with Orange/Blue/Silver, Yellow line Metro trains and VRE trains). This small regional service could move as many as half a million people headed northward and provide an powerful incremental improvement of the US North East Corridor rail on that segment.

    The greatly expanded tunnel could be used for non-stop super express trains bypassing DC Union Station (and all other stations,) e.g. NYC to DCA Airport (actually Crystal City VA) to shorten flights southward, or Philadelphia-DCA-Charlotte NC (interconnecting USAir hubs), etc. complimenting and competing with air planes, to cut carbon foot prints and build up high speed rail with as many passengers as possible, expanding high speed rail passenger train speeds and reliability.

    The greatly expanded tunnel (lanes and height) could be used for MARC commuter from east of DC to L'Enfant Plaza, sharing the VRE Commuter Rail station, expanding access to the intersection of two Metro rail lines, with 5 colors (Yellow/Green, Blue/Orange/Silver)

    Concerns with such a project are typically divided into 4 major issues. 1) opposition to temporary (3 years here) construction to a rail improvement in the neighborhoods that will build efficient infrastructure that last generations and reduce truck, car, and even airplane pollution per person for generations, 2) opposition to possible vibration/sound of all trains forever which use the improvements even if that can be ameliorated at (vast or some?) expense, 3) request for plan refinements to prevent short sighted planning in the expansion, 4) opposition to patterns of usage such as specific types of trains e.g. some or all ordinary freight trains.

    The freight train usage of a downtown DC tunnel is a controversial, and potentially risky usage, which should be resolved long term with two new north-south rail corridors west of DC, one for passengers and Air Cargo on high speed rail from near Burke VA to Washington Dulles Airport IAD east side with branches to Dickerson MD/Chicago and Rockville/Laurel/Bowie/Baltimore/NYC, and another bypass west of the IAD airport for industrial freight trains. Only the freight rail bypass west of IAD Airport has been even discussed in detail, and may be decades off, making the downtown DC tunnel expansion a major priority for efficient (rail) transportation. Having freight rail pay for the tunnel expansion solving and paying for the current rail bottle neck, while more valuable uses can be planned and established with years of thoughtful planning finding required investment for the possible services I mentioned here, is a smart move, because all the rail services require the expanded rail lanes and rail car height dimensions.

    DC should get all rail tunnels in downtown DC drastically expanded, to help DC prosper forever (by saving time and energy for many types of users and cargoes), but much more detail of the plan and the criticisms is required. The biggest problem for DC is if NIMBY politics sabotages a potentially essential high speed rail line bypassing Union Station, and commuter rail line to downtown. If some freight capacity is used for the time being to pay off the improvement, while the 2 western DC bypasses are built, and passenger service uses of the tunnel are worked out, it would help pay off an essential and rare investment into the future of DC.

    More clarity is required to explain why DC should reject such a powerful idea, and essential investment that would greatly assist in smart growth, both of which will help DC long term, and weather any of the concerns can be addressed with better planning, or if citizen opposition can be unified to a specific category of concern, that can be addressed and minimized with a better plan.

  • Nathaniel P.

    Does anyone have a link to plan details and documents (especially lengthy PDFs), and specific criticism of the initial CSX plan?

  • Nathaniel P.

    Another possible use of big rail tunnels in DC is extending the north end of Amtrak Autotrain (Lorton, VA to Florida service moving passengers and their cars) from Lorton VA (South of DC), to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Newark, NJ (NYC). This would help create a variety of related automobile on rail services slashing long haul car driving through not just DC, but many north east corridor coastal cities. One possible service addition is connecting with an Autotrain Chicago to Baltimore with some trains continuing to Florida through DC. This would help serve Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pittsburgh PA, and Maryland for starters, but also help share the existing route to Amtrak Autotrain to Florida. A service not using the proposed DC corridor, but related in making Amtrak Autotrain possible services more effective, is connecting Chicago to NYC (Newark NJ).