City Desk

Navy Yard Residents Still Aren’t Convinced About Train Tunnel Plan

CSXtunnelThe 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

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  • Just Sayin’

    Someone is entrusting half a million dollars to the ANC's? I find that far more troubling than any other aspect of the project.

  • sbc

    Even if the ANCs did want to accept the money, they'd need approval from the council for anything over $1000. It's in the DC Code: 1-309.10(L)

  • Maureen Cohen Harrington

    Of course CSX won't enter into a public, binding, perpetual agreement with the city to reroute Bakken crude and the worst of the hazmats. CSX knows that it has offered us meaningless reassurances about its alleged intentions, its secret voluntary agreement, and its willingness to comply with toothless federal regulation. CSX wants to ship anything through this route along the monument core, and it has fought tenaciously for the right to do so.

    The real question is, why won't the city require such a public, binding, perpetual agreement as a condition of any permissions and approvals that the city provides for the CSX expansion? The city is quickly losing leverage for a rare opportunity to require by contract what it wasn't able to require by regulation. CSX defeated the city's post-9/11 hazmat rerouting legislation. Only the federal government, the D.C. Circuit held, may regulate the railroads.

    A contract isn't regulation. And CSX's common carrier obligations can be dealt with in other ways. In fact, according to CSX, they already are. Because CSX is already rerouting this stuff, right?

  • jay

    these people are nuts. the trains were there before them, they'll be there after them. deal with it, and take the extra $500 bucks a month and buy sleeping meds for and night construction.

  • buzz

    To bad you people are all low info Obama voters who just could care less about the railroad that has been around long before you clowns moved in and you refuse to listen to what they say is moved through that tunnel. . They said merchandise you liberal low info losers! What part of that did you idiots not get? Good Lord! No hazardous material is moved in that tunnel! NO CRUDE unless the cars are empty you fools! intermodal and general merchandise trains only! Are you people that ignorant, that stupid, that self centered that you can not listen and read?

  • Doug Jones

    Dear Jay,

    Trains preceded people? Who's nuts here? Last time I checked, it was people that gave birth to the industrial revolution's innovations (such as the railroad), not the other way around. If you're not an Internet Troll, I've never seen one. Maybe you should try to find an honest way to make a living. Or are you so far up the Koch Brothers boohineys you can't find your way out?

    What's really nuts is calling people nuts because they want to protect themselves, their homes and neighbors from unchecked and reckless profit-motivated incursions into populated areas. I'm hoping we're at the end of that era. It's been a shameful one in American history.

    Eleanor Holmes Norton, Tommy Wells and Charles Allen, please do your due diligence on this issue and fight for your constituents. Keep after them, Mo!

    Doug Jones
    Lexington, VA

  • Ward-8

    You are sooo right Jay, if they walk a few feet in any direction, there is more construction than you can shake a stick at. Dang! forgot, expensive condos don't count in all of their noise, they like to have folks around them just like them.

  • Rock

    Yeah no one lived on Cap Hill until the trains were already there, nice lack of historic knowledge.

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  • Typical DC BS

    Gee, Doug Jones, nice that you bloviate the usual left wing nonsense all the way from Lexington, VA. Yours has got to be the most ironic statement of all, coming from someone with NO SKIN IN THE GAME and who can't even intelligently describe the issues.

    By the way, the rail tunnel has been there since the late 1800's. So your moronic statement of "...incursions into populated areas" just reflects how worthless your understanding of the situation is. AND, this project has been in the works for over a DECADE now, it's just that folks like you haven't been paying attention.

    Or are you just another low intelligence Dumocrat proudly proving your ignorance when whining about the "Koch Brothers", who have NOTHING to do with CSX?

  • Typical DC BS

    Maureen, you're just a quack. Jeez.

  • Doug Jones

    Thank you, Rock! You hit the nail on the head.

    In DC BSer's warped logic, he uses some kind of magical thinking to mischaracterize protecting one's neighborhood as being left wing.

    As a former resident of DC, I do have skin in the game and do care about the city where I lived for over thirty years.

    As for your argument that because the project is justified because it's been in the works for over ten years is like saying because I've been planning for ten years to plant fifty tons of dynamite under your house means it's perfectly OK. Now who's the moron here?

    The incursions I referred to were not from the rail, which has a place there, but from the potential for dangerous materials to spill, ignite and explode as they did near me here in southwest Virginia last April.

    So, with recently exploding CSX trains causing evacuations in one of my neighboring cities (Lynchburg), you can see I do have even more skin in the game. In case you missed it, here's the news report:

    From the Huffington Post: "Richard Edinger, assistant fire chief in the Richmond suburb of Chesterfield County, said no fire department except those at some refineries has sufficient equipment and materials to deal with exploding oil-filled tank cars."

    "Edinger, who also serves as vice chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs' Hazardous Materials Committee, said emergency responders have long been aware of the threat posed by the transport of crude oil."

    "'What's new to this picture is the scale, the amount of product coming through," he said. "That's the game changer.'"

    I realize, Mr. BS'er, you will probably paint Chief Edinger as another left wing nut job, and that nothing anybody says will shift your cynical so-called mind out of neutral. But this is the real hazard posed by running flammables on rail through high-density population centers. It's less a question of IF it will happen than WHEN it will happen. If we just loll around and let things happen, it will, and it won't be until the disaster strikes that we will find out the impact in terms of loss of life and property. At that point, "I told you so!" just doesn't much help.

    And with CSX running those flammable materials within 100 yards of my home in Roanoke and within a half mile of the college where I teach, even more of my skin in the game.

    As for your inane parting shot, what do you mean the Kochs have nothing to do with CSX? Only an ignoramus would be unaware that CSX moves massive quantities of Koch Industries petroleum products throughout the country every day. Who do you think you're fooling?

  • Brian

    Maureen is a quack. She wants answers and this DC Saferail group seems to be a bunch of anonymous NIMBY's who do not list who they are.
    I'll take 500 bucks a month for inconvenience.
    Nice of Garber to claim "Bribe" which sheds light on his lack of leadership and Melissa Lee (the lady quoted in the article) seems to have the same rant.
    Sad bunch who really are not fooling anyone.
    Mr. Wells and Mr. Allen hopefully understand the need and are not taken in by these people.