Tunnel of Controversy

Capitol Hill residents rally against CSX renovation of the Virginia Avenue Tunnel

Recent revelations and incidents have reignited concerns about the proposed renovation of the Virginia Avenue Tunnel (VAT) that runs through Capitol Hill from 2nd Street and Virginia Avenue to 11th and M Streets SE.   While long suspected, CSX recently confirmed that oil (but not in unit trains) is among materials transported through the tunnel. Heightening the anxiety of residents, on Sunday, November 17, the DC Fire Department was called to extinguish flames emanating from a freight car of creosote-soaked railway ties on a train that had just exited the tunnel. Smoke engulfed Garfield Park which was quickly vacated. The cause of the fire is unknown, and no injuries were reported.

To address community concerns, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton convened an emotionally charged two hour meeting with CSX, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) and some 125 neighbors at the Capper Senior Center on Saturday, November 23rd. During the meeting, one neighbor characterized the project as “environmental racism” while a FHWA representative urged people not to get in a “tizzy” thinking the worst is going to happen.  For many residents, the November 17 fire was proof that something very bad could happen. Meanwhile, Representative Norton described neighborhood concerns as “justified” and stated that she was “not going to stand by to see the neighborhood torn up, now that it’s built up.” As the ranking minority Member for the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, she said she would be requesting a Congressional Hearing on the VAT.


The first part of the CSX-owned Virginia Avenue Tunnel was constructed around 1872 and ran from 11th to 7th Street, SE.  In the early 1900s, the tunnel was extended to 2nd Street SE.  CSX claims that the tunnel is now a bottleneck because it is too low for double-stacked container railcars and has only a single track (reduced from its original two due to earlier modernizations of train equipment).  CSX hopes to expand the VAT so that it contains two tracks and double-stacked railcars can travel through it.  The project will cost up to $208 million.

Impacts, Concerns and Pay Offs

As you take the I-695 6th Street SE exit, the front yards of the homes to your right would be ground zero for the project.

Construction would occur over a 30 to 66 month timeframe (depending on the option selected and using the most optimistic projection for the minimum).  It would include a temporary open trench and a track for double-stacked railcars. Sections of Virginia Avenue would be closed, and a portion of Virginia Avenue Park would become a construction staging area. While residents would retain access to their homes, over 100 on-street parking spaces would be lost during construction and some 160 trees felled along Virginia Avenue. Hundreds of trees would be lost nearby.  Cross streets and the I-695 6th Street exit would undergo temporary closures. Post construction, Virginia Avenue would be streetscaped, and a bikeway to the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail might be established along Virginia Avenue, connecting with Garfield Park with Virginia Avenue Park “if desired by stakeholders.” At minimum, sidewalks would be fully restored to pre-construction conditions.  The old growth trees would be replaced by saplings.

The July 2013 derailment of a train near Lac-Megantic, Quebec coupled with the November 17th fire has residents worried about the transport of hazardous materials, especially through the open trench. CSX has a voluntary agreement with DC government whereby “high hazmats” (ammonia, chlorine, and explosive materials) are not at this time transported through the District. Other hazardous materials including oil are not covered under this agreement. CSX notes, “The voluntary agreement isn’t related to the tunnel or its condition, and the reconstruction of the tunnel will not change it.” CSX says that it works with local authorities so they understand what is being shipped through communities and provide specific information about products when asked. “For security reasons, we do not publicly disclose this information”.

Monte Edwards, a neighborhood resident and a member of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City (C100) notes, “The possible occurrence of human error together with future congestion on the Washington tracks and greater speed of the CSX trains create a volatile mix that has resulted in derailments that resulted in explosions, fires, deaths, and extensive damage to people and property in recent derailments in other locations.”

Accidents are not unknown to the tunnel. In addition to the November 17th fire, a derailment occurred in November 2009 with a train pulling 18 hazmat cars. CSX maintains that the aging tunnel requires increasing inspection and preventive maintenance and that rebuilding the tunnel – removing the asbestos and building a floor (which it currently lacks) - will improve safety. They also note that a renovated VAT will help reduce rail congestion, reducing the time any train spends in the District by two minutes.  However, the DEIS says the tunnel is safe: "Despite the signs of distress noted above, the tunnel is in no danger of collapsing in part due to tunnel reinforcements and reconstruction made in late 1985 and early 1986.”


Over the past three years, DDOT and the FHWA have undertaken a “National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) Study” on the VAT. A 1600 page Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) released in July 2013 as a part of this study presents four options, including a “no build” option. With the exception of the no build” option, all include a temporary open trench of varying lengths for trains during construction.

Some would be appeased if rail traffic could be rerouted during the project, versus having trains run – possibly on temporary tracks and while carrying hazmats– through an active construction site. Choruses of “REROUTE” (permanent, as well as temporary) peppered the November 23rd meeting. According to CSX, temporary rerouting was ruled out due to operational, functional and infrastructure constraints on other tracks, and the temporary trench provides the cheapest option to CSX. 

Chris French, President of the recently established Navy Yard Neighborhood Association notes, “CSX hasn’t given any straight answers. When we moved here there were 10 or 11 different concepts on the table, many of which might have reduced or even eliminated the risk to the neighborhood. But they narrowed the selection to three different versions of the same concept: an open trench construction with trains travelling 25 MPH. That’s not a choice, that’s CSX picking the one solution that they want and packaging it three different ways to give the impression that they’re evaluating options. We’re getting railroaded”.

Reactions to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement

The DEIS has also been widely criticized by several groups. Per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the document has "deficiencies and areas of concern, including environmental justice, children's environmental health, cumulative impacts, and community impacts, especially vibration, parks, visual, and utility disruptions". The Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS) notes that the DEIS underestimates the vibrations of a new tunnel (single-track estimates were used versus estimates associated with double-stacked trains).  They also note that the DEIS uses outdated data and fails to address the impacts of increased emissions associated with diesel trains that CSX operates.  C100 finds the DEIS to be “excessively narrow and (a document) that fails to develop a legitimate range of alternatives and to comprehensively analyze the implications of rebuilding an enlarged freight tunnel at the current Virginia Avenue location”.  They also note that the DEIS doesn’t consider the need to expand passenger/commuter service over time or the inability of passenger/commuter rail to use electric (versus diesel) locomotives to mitigate environmental impacts because of CSX restrictions. The DC Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) notes, “there are significant utility conflicts that are as yet unresolved and may prove infeasible and/or unacceptable.” 

ANC6B unanimously supports a hybrid of the three options that minimizes the duration of the work as well as noise and vibrations, enables trains to run along a covered temporary track, and has a minimal impact on Virginia Avenue Park. Meanwhile, some members of ANC6D note that the DEIS “contains factual inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and questionable statements that undermine its credibility” and that the document doesn’t address “broader safety and environmental concerns that NEPA contemplates for such level of review, including specific plans for mitigation of the negative effects on ... the (impacted) community.” They also question CSX’s authority to expand the VAT and its right of way.  The November 23rd meeting revealed that this project cannot go forward without various approvals, including permits from DDOT.

Maureen Cohen Harrington, a neighborhood resident notes "we believe this (project) is properly described an expansion, not as a reconstruction. The latter term implies that CSX is renovating the tunnel within its current right of way. In fact, not only are they making it bigger, but they are also shifting its location considerably. One alternative results in a new permanent tunnel completely beyond the boundaries of the current tunnel -- and much closer to nearby homes, the Capper Senior Center, and historic buildings". 

Next Steps

The public comment period on the DEIS concluded in September 2013. Next steps include:

  • addressing comments;
  • selecting a preferred option and developing mitigation measures;
  • releasing a final EIS (FEIS) which will include the FHWA and DDOT preferred alternative; and
  • issuing the Record of Decision per NEPA requirements.

While no one has a definite timetable for these deliverables, according to DDOT, the FEIS could be released by year’s end.  Once the NEPA process is complete, final design can start and approvals and permits from FHWA and DDOT will be requested. Once the NEPA process is complete, construction can begin.  What is clear is that at least for the near-term, the VAT will remain a topic of controversy.

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