City Desk

Navy Yard Residents to Council: We Really, Really Do Not Want the CSX Tunnel

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

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

D.C. Council Chariman Phil Mendelson held a marathon five-hour hearing today on the Virginia Avenue Tunnel—an operating, 100-year-old rail track for freight trains that runs through the Navy Yard and Capitol Hill areas. The owner of the tunnel, CSX Transportation, says it's in need of major renovations.

And some residents don't want those renovations to happen, at least not in the way CSX has proposed. The company 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 construction is expected to last more than three years, and CSX wants trains to run through the tunnel while the construction is underway. The residents fear the environmental and safety hazards it would pose to the community.

The Committee of the Whole hearing was slated to discuss a proposed resolution that calls for the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to hold a hearing on the controversial project. The Federal Highway Administration is the lead agency for the project.

But today's hearing scarcely referenced the legislation, and instead served as a forum for residents to raise their concerns in front of Mendelson. CSX representatives were also there to testify and answer Mendelson's questions.

The issues discussed today were nothing new. The Navy Yard and Capitol Hall resident have long been vocal in their opposition to this project, packing community meeting after community meeting on the subject. "This is a project that brings no additional benefit to the city whatsoever," Tomas Bilbao, a resident, said today.

CSX assured Mendelson and the residents the construction would not be used to increase the transportation of crude oil through the city. Louis Renjel, the vice president for strategic infrastructure at CSX,  says his company is "acutely aware" that the construction will be inconvenient to residents, but it is doing everything to mitigate the disturbances.

At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who was in attendance for the beginning of the hearing, said the project is so complicated because "this is one of things that need to be solved today, and the impact of that solution can have an impact for the next hundred years."

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

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  • Idiot observer

    Timby, train in my back yard.......

  • Pop M

    How is this not NIMBY-ism in its classic form? No one wants to have their lot adjacent to an interstate highway and could argue that most of the benefit of an interstate highway doesn't accrue to the local neighborhood or even the city. But all benefit from an interstate highway system and therefore parts of it DO get placed adjacent to backyards and neighborhoods who would rather not have them at least THERE. To echo arguments appearing in this form, GGW, and others all the time, if you bought near a rail line that has been there since before your grandparents were born or before, should you be able to block its development or use? Where do the rights of private land holders end and the rights of the local residents override those? Is there a zoning or other land use regulation already existing that this conflicts with? Are local permits required?

  • Bob See

    Here's a good write-up on why they need to upgrade the tunnel:

    The objections seem to boil down to "not in my back yard".

  • vahoya

    I live down in Capitol Quarter about two blocks from the proposed project. I'm not opposed to the project per se, in fact I think it has legitimate infrastructure importance. What bothers me, and most people (in my opinion), is the lack of transparency by CSX regarding their plans, the project timeline and how they're going to complete it. I've read the draft EIS and been to most the meetings and CSX comes across is unable to succinctly describe the basic plan for completing this project and how it will be completed in a timely and safe manner.

    There's certainly a lot of hysteria by some residents, which I can appreciate, but CSX could have mitigated this with better communication and outreach beyond what I consider to be superficial efforts at best (i.e. sponsoring community events and having booths where they pass out free water). For example, they've done a similar project in Pittsburgh. The most logical solution would be to give a presentation on what they project was like, what the risks were and how they successfully pulled it off. That would go a LONG way to answering my concerns and questions.

    There's going to be large freight trains running in an open trench for three years a few feet from people's homes. There's legitimate risk of an accident occurring during this time, due to the fact that there's a major construction project immediately adjacent to an operating rail line and next to relatively high density residential and office. Not to mention the fact that we're within a mile of the capital.

    How CSX has managed to get this far without having to better disclose how they plan to pull off such a complicated project is beyond me. However unlikely an accident might be, if one were to occur it could be catastrophic. Just yesterday, downtown Lynchburg had to be evacuated because a half dozen CSX rail cars carrying oil derailed and caught fire. Imagine if that happened here. Half the Hill might need to be cleared out. Seems to me that this merits the scrutiny...

    Like I said, I'm fine with the project happening (not that my opinion matters), but CSX really should be able to explain how they can pull this off safely and in a timely manner.

  • Bob See

    Is there a comment policy I should be aware of?

  • E. Masquinongy

    @Pop M: The opposition is against the *expansion* of the rail line: CSX will make more money, while the residents get to suffer the consequences. Personally, I am OK with the line as it presently exists.

    The construction will be damn inconvenient for the neighbors, even CSX acknowledges this. But they are trying to do it on the cheap; that is the rub. And when it is done, the trains will be passing twice as often. Basically a bad deal for the neighborhood.

    While not mentioning what effects this project will have on the nearby properties, you blithely call opposition to it "NIMBY" -- a strongly pejorative word. I guess you like to pick a fight.

  • http://None Aldo Kelrast

    Is there not the potential for some community benefits here?

    I'm not talking about the broader societal benefits of moving more freight via rail instead of truck and that is a real and clear benefit to society.

    But are there not design options that would make this a local benefit?

    I don't live nearby but live in the city and am familiar with the area but what about a longer tunnel that kept the trains obscured for a longer time?

    Could a longer or modified tunnel enable the community to reclaim some closed intersections? Or have additional public or developable space anywhere?

    And surely a properly designed and engineered modern tunnel would in fact be safer and reduce the opportunity for derailments and accidents from the trains that currently pass through and will pass through regardless of whether this rebuild happens?

    And surely the existing tunnel causes delays which means these same trains that folks are so concerned about are spending more rather than less time in their community?

    And the big local benefit could be increased opportunities for more commuter rail from VA - is anyone local positively engaged to see if out of this negotiation CSX can contribute and facilitate the Long Bridge Replacement and maybe also agree to additional time slots for VRE & Amtrak passenger trains on its tracks?

    If they get the benefit of being able to run larger trains two ways through this tunnel why not insist that some of that capacity be returned to the community in the form of more slots for passenger trains?

    Perhaps folks are positively engaged on these issues but if so it has not been covered in any pieces and if not then shame on the folks who are just fighting this project and not thinking creatively about how to make it a win win for everyone because as I earlier pointed out trains have been running through this tunnel for 100 years and will continue to run through this tunnel even if nothing changes so why not use this project as a springboard to a better neighborhood and more regional commuter rail?

  • Ward-8

    Its amazing these NIMBY folks have no arguments about the reconstruction and expansion of the Interstate highway in the same neighborhood, they have no arguments about the for profit building of several high rise apartments and Condos, some currently under construction and some completed in the same area plus other for profit developments in the same neighborhood, perhaps these ass holes should take a walk around their neighborhood and get a better perspective and realize their arguments against CSX is full of hot air and bull shit, as someone else stated this rail line was there before some of these do gooders were born or the entire area develop. What do CSX want? replace a rail tunnel that's over 50 years old and not structurally sound.If these ass holes would check further and use Common sense,they would realize for the same reason the DC Government, resurface and repaired the 14th street bridge, rebuilt the Pennsylvania Ave bridge, rebuilt the 11th street bridge and currently in the process of rebuilding the South Capitol St. Bridge. Norton ,Mendelson and the Mayor should give these ass holes a tour of the neighborhood and then tell them to STFU.

  • E. Masquinongy

    @Ward 8: The current tunnel is over 100 years old (not 50) and it IS structurally sound -- otherwise they couldn't use it.

    You are absolutely correct that urban transportation projects -- you cite the 11 St and Pennsylvania Ave bridges, and urban interstates in general -- have had very bad effects on city neighborhoods. Particularly for the road projects done in the 60s, there was terrible financial damage done to property owners in poor areas. But in your argument, you fail show how the sins of the past justify new ones.

    I must point out that road projects are *public* infrastructure, which is different from this new CSX tunnel, which is for a *private* corporation that owns the tunnel property, and profits from its use. It is like a relatively quiet restaurant being expanded to a much larger, much louder nightclub -- consideration must be made to the neighbors.

  • Typical DC BS

    So sad, seeing the same tired arguments (what's wrong with leaving the current tunnel as is? why should I be inconvenienced? WAAAH, WAAAH, WAAAH). Guess what? This is part of living in an URBAN area - inconvenience for a period of time for the greater good.
    This tunnel is NOT going to be structurally sound for much longer - if you bothered to research the CSX report, they have already mentioned that the tunnel has gone long beyond it's useful life. Second, this is a MAJOR chokepoint on the East Coast rail shipping lines. It needs to be expanded in order to diminish the delays (i.e. costs) that CSX and their customers have been incurring for over a decade.
    Finally, this will become a tunnel again once the expansion work is completed.
    Sorry, this project will happen, no matter how much un-informed or ill-informed whining takes place.

  • Karina

    People who live in the neighborhood know and accept the risks associated with living next to this tunnel as it's currently configured. The problem is CSX's current construction proposals are putting us at an *increased* risk of a catastrophic derailment and will greatly impact passenger and commuter rail for decades to come, simply to increase the company's bottom line. There are other safer, more reasonable alternatives CSX has dismissed without any scrutiny or explanation. What many people want is for CSX to go back to the drawing board and come up with better construction proposals. The permit approval process is designed to work that way. There's no reason to rush this project. If the tunnel is in such bad condition then stop running hazmats through it now or stop using it all together. But that's not an excuse for allowing CSX to what is best for it's bottom line without any regard for the safety of the trackside community or the District as a whole. The THREE CSX derailments yesterday in Lynchburg, Bowie, and Greenville, NC prove there's reason to worry. This isn't: "Not In My BackYard sentiments"....this is: "If You're Going To Do This In My BackYard You Better Do It Right." Big difference.

  • IsThisThingOn

    Internet tough guys all over this thread. None of the neighbors doubt they bought in an urban area - but there is a palpable and understandable lack of trust with CSX about the way this project is being presented. People talk of three years? Try a decade. CSX could get one year into this project and when they realize that the ships aren't coming into Baltimore the way they expected, and it not in their financial interest to continue it "just yet", they could halt the project and the District will have virtually ZERO leverage against their decision.

    Additionally, the risks are nuts - CSX had three derailments YESTERDAY alone in the mid-Atlantic region, and factor in the reality that additional freight rail traffic will congest the Long Bridge's commuter capability (Sorry WMATA.)

    I don't want to see the Anacostia on fire because of another CSX disaster. Reroute this stuff around the city. If not permanently, then at least during construction. Anything else is just begging for trouble

  • E. Masquinongy

    @Typical -- you sound like a stockholder.

  • Pop M

    When did the standard for opposition become - this is a PRIVATE development that will generate increased PRIVATE profits? Isn't that the basis of virtually all the new housing and condo and office and commercial development in the last 30 years in this neighborhood? I can see an argument for PUBLIC benefit where PUBLIC investment/property is the basis. Should public funds be spent for another lane of interstate or an on/off ramp that is not desired by some in a neighborhood. But last I checked, private property is subject to the development decisions of the owner(s). Can someone tell me that the proposed project violates zoning, land use, or other public requirements that necessitate a decision or review by government? Why is an EIS required in the first place? And EIS is for PUBLIC agencies or when public agency approval is required for a private project of significant scale.

  • alum

    Part of this opposition is because the people who, from 2006 - 2009, signed contracts and purchased those new homes and condos were not told that CSX wanted to renovate the tunnel. CSX knew, the developers knew, and the federal and city governments knew, but did not bother to inform the purchasers of this material fact.

  • Pop M

    @ Alum - caveat emptor. Wake up and smell the coffee. If you don't do due diligence before YOU buy property, then YOU made the error of omission. Can't blame others for your errors.

  • JS

    @IsThisThingOn - What are you talking about? WMATA doesn't use the long bridge to run commuter rail. It has it own tracks for Metro.

  • Maureen Cohen Harrington

    To those who think the argument begins and ends with the claim that CSX was here before residents:

    This isn't a game of dibs. And even if it was, CSX loses. The Capitol was here first. As was the Library of Congress. And many other historic buildings that, along with their workers and residents, are placed at grave risk by the CSX expansion plans.

    And would you really argue that CSX is more important than the Supreme Court, even though the railroad – not CSX, by the way – was here first? Actually, plenty of residents have been here longer than CSX, which acquired these tracks from Conrail in 1998.

    At any rate, no one is trying to force CSX out of its current tracks. CSX is trying to force its way into land that doesn't belong to it – approximately four acres for permanent use, and plenty more during many years of construction. CSX will ship hazardous materials – including Bakken crude oil – through the crowded construction site, with the freeway only a few feet away on one side, and homes (including a seniors building and affordable rental housing) only a few feet away on the other.

    But the considerable impacts aren’t limited to the construction time frame or the construction zone. The proposed CSX expansion will make things worse for safety and security. For passenger and commuter rail. For our environment. And yes, for our economy.

    Attacking people by zip code doesn't get us any further than attacking CSX merely because it's a multibillion-dollar corporation concerned only with maximizing its profits.

    Let's stop the name-calling, move beyond simple arguments, and began an honest dialogue about what is truly in the best interests of the District and the nation. A good first step would be using our real names.

  • Skeptic

    Quadrupling freight going through a densely packed urban neighborhood, which is also an employment center, and, potentially, a symbolic target strikes me as a really bad idea and I don't live anywhere near the site. The hazmat and security issues were citywide concerns years ago -- and with good reason.

    From what I've read, this project won't increase the amount of freight traveling by rail so much as improve CSX's competitive position vis a vis Norfolk Southern -- and remember that CSX switches to "intermodal" aka trucks near Baltimore because of the Howard Street bridge bottleneck there. And, at the same time, CSX's expansion constrains the expansion of local commuter rail which would do a lot more to decrease emissions over the longer term.

    This isn't an environmentalists vs. NIMBYs battle (something that's pretty obvious when you see what side environmentalist groups and media have been on in this dispute). It's corporate power vs. largely disenfranchised citizens. And if your reaction is just to dismiss whatever concern residents have, well then you're basically just a tool.

  • Aldo Kelrastq

    @Maureen Cohen Harrington - you are making a slew of arguments that you have offered no support for and which on their face make no sense whatsoever.

    First you set up a laundry list of false and frankly silly comparisons - as if this is an existential debate between CSX and seniors or the Capital or the Supreme Court.

    As has been repeatedly pointed out this tunnel has been in heavy use for more than a hundred years and I am missing how the Supreme Court, seniors and the Capital (and nearby residents for that matter) have suffered because of its presence - do you have evidence of this or can you even make an argument that that is the case?

    In cities by necessity we learn to accommodate multiple groups and needs in compact areas and yes that compromise extends to large corporations.

    How does this proposed tunnel make things worse for safety and security? Worse for commuter rail?

    How is CSX taking four acres for its use? Are they illegally seizing public lands? Or are they converting land they own to other uses? Is the conversion non-compliant with zoning?

    If these are all real issues is there really no opportunity for an improved tunnel with better engineering to be safer? Would CSX agree to lowered speed limits to reduce the likliehood of derailments?

    Is there no opportunity for the new tunnel to be designed in such a way that it is longer and perhaps more obscures the trains and returns some land and intersections to viable use for the immediate community?

    Surely with the much greater capacity of the improved tunnel that will give CSX more scheduling flexibility - are any of the opponents screaming about commuter rail positively engaged with CSX and elected and regulatory officials to request more and better time slots for commuter rail?

    And I am incredulous that they will be shipping bakken crude through here - given where it comes from and where US refinery capacity is it makes no sense whatsoever that it would be routed through SE DC.

    Which is a nice segue to the bigger point - how many of these same folks have been screaming about the hazardous energy product which is likely being shipped through the existing tunnel which is coal and which is likely shedding large amounts of coal dust as it is currently being shipped?

    How many of those same folks have been active to get the only coal fired power plant remaining inside the beltway closed down which happens to be in their neighborhood?

    How many of these same folks screaming about their environmentalism have been fighting the much greater amounts of PUBLIC money DDOT has been spending to improve the bridges and freeways that scar and divide their own neighborhood to serve suburban drivers?

    Or are all of these complaints really just a lot of screaming to scare people and tossing as many ideas out there hoping to scare and thus hook as many people into the process however far fetched some of them are.

    I'm not arguing these points one way or the other here - CSX may be a bad actor proposing a bad design with bad timelines that won't improve the area and will create an unsafe tunnel.

    But there is nothing about a larger tunnel that necessarily means any of the above is true either and the opponents who've been quoted to date have done a poor job articulating what the actual problems are with what CSX is proposing and as I keep pointing out have not articulated how the project might be better and whether they have made such suggestions and whether CSX has responded positively or negatively.

  • IsThisThingOn

    JS - no, the NEW long-bridge is slated to have its own designated tracks. The current long bridge does not.

    @PopM "Why is an EIS required in the first place?" - because the PRIVATE company is looking to infringe/occupy/encumber PUBLIC lands and usage rights in order to accomplish those PRIVATE missions for their PRIVATE profits (none of which are of any benefit to DC.)

    I don't begrudge private profits. But due process here is warranted. They seek to expand their private land dramatically into the public space and they seek to impair public surface rights virtually indefinitely while they do their project.


    I blame the EYA development company. Really, I do.
    Why? Because the folks yelling the loudest about this are the ones who paid 700k plus in 2008 to buy one of EYAs town houses at Capitol Quarter.

    In late 2007/ early 2008 when EYA started construction, CSX had already been talking about this for nearly 2 years. I was interested in buying, and actually asked an EYA sales person at their sales center what the schedule was for the CSX improvements and I was led to another room away from the interested buyers and given some line in hushed whispers about how they didn't know anything and the work would probably never happen. I asked the question a week later on a blog EYA had set up to discuss the development, and the question disappeared the next day. Basically, EYA wanted nothing to remotely interfere with their sales and so they weren't going to say anything about a enormous multi year infrastructure project to take place mere feet from dozens of their homes they were trying to sell for 700k and up.

    Fast forward 6 years, and we have a bunch of people making any specious argument they can make so the value of their now 900k homes aren't affected. CSX doesn't owe anyone anything. It's their tunnel and it isn't their fault you bought a 700K house feet from it.

    And to those of you complaining that “ no plan”
    has been put forward, you are either blind or willfully ignorant. There have been 4 plans put forward, and they are all under discussion right now. Once the final plan is decided upon, they will then start the final design and you can have all the detail you like. Quit making specious arguments and cladding them in your willful ignorance.

  • Maureen Cohen Harrington

    I encourage everyone, once again, to use their real names in their comments and to actively participate in community meetings and hearings about the proposed CSX expansion. No one expressed these pro-CSX or "anti-NIMBY" views at the well-attended public meetings with Congresswoman Norton, the Mayor, or the D.C. Council.

    Please own your opinions, and back them up with facts in forums where your contributions would matter. This is a complicated subject that can't be meaningfully discussed with anonymous soundbites.

    I also note that attacking the messengers (e.g., charges of NIMBYism) is a tactic of last resort for those who are unable to attack the message. It's common sense that those who are most directly impacted by a situation are among those who spend the most time and resources addressing it. We can all benefit from their research. And, of course, the CSX proposal has plenty of informed opponents well beyond our immediate neighborhood.

    To learn more, please see:$file/20130207.PDF?OpenElement

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  • E. Masquinongy

    @MCH: This is a pseudoanonymous forum. Your request "is out of order."

    What is refreshing about anonymity is that people are free to reveal what they are really thinking, without reprisal.