WASHINGTON (WUSA9) -- Building a new rail line to re-route trainloads of hazardous freight away from the shadow of the U.S. Capitol would be impractical and too expensive, according to a new Federal Environmental Impact statement released Friday on the proposed reconstruction of the aging Virginia Avenue Tunnel.
Instead, the CSX-owned tunnel, which lies less than a half mile from the Capitol complex, should be re-built to allow two-way train traffic and double-stacked rail cars, the statement says.
The final recommendation, if adopted, virtually guarantees a large increase in hazardous rail traffic only four blocks from the Rayburn House Office Building for generations to come.
The study is a major disappointment to Southeast Washington residents who have been fighting tunnel expansion and fear derailments of hazardous cargo such as crude oil and diesel fuel.
"It brings an unnecessary public health and safety risk, especially when CSX transports highly flammable Bakken crude oil and other hazardous materials through the District," Virginia Ave. resident Natalie Skidmore said. "The risk of a derailment as seen in Lynchburg in late April when a CSX train carrying Bakken crude derailed spilling crude oil into the James River will be increased."
The final environmental impact statement recommendation from the Federal Highway Administration turns away several options that called for re-routing train traffic out of the downtown area in favor of new rail lines through Southern Maryland.
"These concepts required 31 and 38 miles of new rail lines, respectively, a new bridge over the Potomac River, and would have affected diverse natural resources and several communities," the report said. Costs would be between $3.2 and $4.2 billion.
By contrast, the study's favored option for expanding the Virginia Avenue tunnel would cost $168 million.
That proposal, called "alternative 3", calls for phased construction that would eliminate a plan to run trains through a temporary open trench within yards of the front doors of homes, a senior center and the Marine Barracks property on eight blocks of Virginia Ave., SE. Instead trains would continue running through tunnels during the three to six years of the reconstruction.
During the first phase, trains would use the existing Virginia Avenue tunnel while a portion of the new project is constructed. Later trains would use the new tunnel, while a second tunnel is completed. The side-by-tracks would then be separated by a concrete wall enhancing future safety, the study says.
"This alternative reduces the construction duration for the project to the greatest extent possible as well as accommodates the train operations in a closed tunnel thereby addressing community concerns about operation of trains within an open trench near residents," according to the study's executive summary.
But the plan would bring construction activity even closer to the homes of residents on Virginia Ave. The option calls for at least $75,000 in compensation to any homeowner who suffers a loss in real estate value if the property must be sold during construction.
The century-old Virginia Avenue tunnel is a critical choke-point in the East Coast freight rail system, which allows trains on a single track in only one direction. The proposed expansion calls for two-way traffic and double-stacked rail cars, allowing CSX to increase the flow of freight with less trains. Currently, about eight trains per day pass through the tunnel.
CSX officials have a "voluntary" agreement not to transport the highest-risk hazardous materials such as chlorine gas through Washington. However, officials confirmed that shipments including crude oil and diesel fuel do pass through the city. Hazarous materials shipments would continue during the three to six years of construction.
New drainage, track bed, and concrete walls in new tunnels would dramatically increase rail safety in the area, the study says.
Residents will have 30 days to review and react to the study before an official decision is made.
CSX officials said in a press release that the "preferred alternative construction plan", they would take the following actions:
- Limiting construction hours;
- Controlling dust at the construction site to maintain air quality;
- Reducing construction noise and vibration by creating physical barriers, choosing less noisy construction techniques, and doing noise and vibration monitoring;
- Working with District Department of Transportation to monitor and maintain traffic flow around the construction site as necessary to reduce impact;
- Providing compensation to the residents who are impacted the most – the residents directly next to the project – and to Virginia Avenue Tunnel neighborhood organizations, to minimize construction impacts as the residents and organizations choose.