Posts about Virginia Avenue Tunnel
Replacing and expanding CSX's Virginia Avenue tunnel in southeast Capitol Hill will be no easy task and is likely to cause more than a few headaches for local residents. Last night, CSX and DDOT kicked off the formal public involvement process, asking attendees for comments, concerns and potential alternatives.
The project scope is virtually unchanged since CSX first unveiled its plans to widen and deepen the tunnel that runs under the eastbound lanes of Virginia Avenue, SE.
The biggest difference since initial talks began in late 2009 is that CSX has chosen not to wait for any additional public funding and will cover much of the additional cost with $160 million of its own capital.
Tonight's event officially started the NEPA environmental evaluation process. The federal review process is being led by the Federal Highway Administration because of the project's potential to impact traffic flow on and off of I-295.
Construction may require temporary closure of the 295 Eastbound on-ramp at 8th Street and Virginia Avenue. This would force drivers heading across the 11th Street Bridge to use the on-ramp at 11th and N Streets.
As part of the NEPA process, CSX and DDOT will hold several public meetings, and this first one was billed as a "scoping meeting." Here's the presentation.
While CSX provided plenty of nametagged people to talk to members of the public and address questions, the open format left more that a few people scratching their heads. A number of attendees expressed their disappointment that CSX didn't begin the meeting with some kind of general presentation about project basics, like tentative designs and schedule, need and potential impacts.
"I don't even really know what's happening," said one nearby resident. "Is this tunnel only one option? I'm not a shy person, so I have no problem asking questions of these people, but I could see how a lot of people can get intimidated."
That may indeed have happened. The organizers boasted about 100 attendees signing in, but it appeared that only half of those were in any way engaged in asking questions of submitting comments, with many others quickly scanning past the placards before heading off into the night.
What's more, the meeting had a decidedly superficial feel to it. The placards scattered about the room contained very little information beyond introductory NEPA facts, a very basic project scope, and a lot of pro-freight rail propaganda, including some nifty computer animations about the National Gateway project.
As David Garber, ANC Commissioner for the affected neighborhood, pointed out, the meeting was lacking in answers to residents' most important questions: what happens during construction and what does the community get out at the end? "Virginia Avenue is not a great public space currently," Garber said, "so there's an opportunity here to change that."
So while many residents were left wondering why they should be made to endure huge, several year long disruptions to their daily lives, there was no sign anywhere of CSX's proposed community amenities.
CSX is clearly making significant efforts to reach out to the community. They're going to need it to overcome an earlier snafu in which the railroad and its consultants used old satellite images for preliminary planning. The old photos left planners unaware that Virginia Avenue was no longer a strip of vacant parcels, but instead a burgeoning neighborhood of new row houses and a senior apartment building.
Still, this event did little to answer residents' questions or quell their fears that the project would be a major disruption to their daily lives. While asking for comments, questions and alternatives is a laudable effort, it is difficult for the public to make reasonable suggestions if they no so little about the actual impacts they can expect.
If you live or work near Virginia Avenue or frequent the SE-SW freeway, DDOT and CSX want to hear your concerns. The NEPA process requires a 30-day comment period, leaving interested members of the public until October 14th to submit their comments. Comments can be submitted via email to email@example.com or via the project website.
Update: The boards from the meeting are now posted online.
Matt Johnson's post on CSX's plans for Virginia Avenue has generated a very large debate. Jacqueline Dupree scanned in the sketch showing some of CSX's ideas for how its project might improve the immediate area.
Those include better underpasses across Virginia Avenue, a new connection at 2nd Street between Garfield and Canal Parks, and a relocated Virginia Avenue that would "create space for a greenway."
Commenters seem divided over whether the regional benefits do or should outweigh the local inconvenience, and whether the prosperous CSX railroad ought to pay for the improvements without public help. These plans don't answer any of those questions, but provide more food for debate.
One of the worst rail bottlenecks on the east coast is Washington's Virginia Avenue Tunnel. While the tunnel originally carried two tracks, it was narrowed to one to allow taller and wider freight cars. With growing freight rail traffic across the united States, the century-old tunnel is in dire need of replacement.
As a part of CSX's National Gateway initiative, the railroad wants to rebuild the tunnel to have two tracks and a higher clearance. This will, in conjunction with other improvements in the region, allow double-stack trains to travel from the Port of Baltimore to the Southeast and trains from the Southeast to travel to the Midwest.
The Virginia Avenue Tunnel project will also reduce congestion for commuter rail riders in the region caused by freight trains waiting for their turn to use the tunnel. In conjunction with other improvements, the tunnel project will allow Amtrak, MARC, and VRE to add more trains in the future.
The 4000-foot long tunnel runs for 9 blocks under Virginia Avenue in Southeast Washington. It carries CSX freight trains from an eastern portal at 11th Street to a western portal near at 2nd Street. Freight traffic traveling from the Southeastern United States to lines running to the Midwest and Northeast must pass through the Virginia Avenue Tunnel. No passenger trains operate through the tunnel because those trains travel through Union Station and the First Street Tunnel.
Monday afternoon, CSX invited several bloggers for an update on the status of the project.
The National Gateway project as a whole got a boost earlier this year when it was awarded a TIGER grant for $98 million to raise clearances at 38 locations in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. There are a remaining 23 projects that must be undertaken, including 13 projects in the region, before CSX's National Gateway will allow double-stack trains to travel between ports on the east coast and Chicago.
The single largest clearance project remaining is the Virginia Avenue Tunnel, which is expected to cost $160 million to replace. CSX is still hoping to receive federal funding for the project, which is contingent to its construction. CSX is looking toward the transportation reauthorization as one source of funding for the project, but President Obama has put that on the back-burner. Another round of TIGER could also provide gains for the project. The US Department of Transportation has already expressed support in the project by funding a portion of the National Gateway. Another feather in CSX's cap is the support of 6 state governors. In fact, Virginia has already spent $26 million toward the tunnel replacement.
In order to replace the tunnel, CSX will undertake a construction program lasting 2-3 years. It wouldn't start before late 2011 at the earliest, and CSX plans to undertake a NEPA environmental impact statement prior to that, which would take 6 months to a year to complete. During the construction period, Virginia Avenue would be closed between 2nd Street and 11th Street SE. CSX representatives say that all cross streets will remain open during construction, with vehicular and pedestrian access, except for short closings to construct temporary structures over through the construction site.
During the tunnel replacement, a temporary trench will be dug south of the existing tunnel. It would be 20-25' wide and about 25' deep. Trains would run in this trench until the tunnel project has been finished. After the tunnel is complete, the trench will be filled back in.
The tunnel itself will have it's top removed. The trackbed will be lowered several feet and the walls will also be widened. Once this is complete, a new roof will be put on top and recovered with soil and Virginia Avenue.
All construction will take place within the right-of-way, which is about 100 feet wide. Although Virginia Avenue would be closed, access will be maintained to properties throughout the process. One of the most difficult areas to work around is the new development which is currently under construction along Virginia Avenue between 3rd and 4th Streets SE. CSX officials said that they would consider decking over the trench in this area if necessary to maintain access.
After the tunnel is complete and the trench refilled, the Virginia Avenue corridor will see some improvements, including new streetscaping and furniture. Additionally, a bikeway linking to the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail will be constructed along the Virginia Avenue axis.
But benefits will extend beyond Southeast DC. Commuters on MARC's Brunswick and Camden Lines and on both VRE lines will see fewer delays. With more freight moving by rail, drivers will also see fewer trucks on the roads and less pollution in the air.
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