WASHINGTON (WUSA9) -- There are new allegations that D.C. transportation officials have rubber-stamped the highly controversial Virginia Avenue Tunnel rail construction project in SE before residents' questions about safety have been put to rest.
Newly discovered documents show the D.C. Department of Transportation issued a key right-of-way permit to rail operator CSX Transportation more than two years ago while officials told residents that no decisions have been made on the railroad's proposal to expand the tunnel.
"When we asked questions, we weren't getting straightforward answers," complained Helen Douglas, 72, a resident of a 164-unit senior housing project at the corner of Virginia Ave. SE and 5th St. SE.
The proposed tunnel expansion would bring major construction within 30-feet of the building.
The permit was revealed when DDOT and the Federal Highway Administration released a highly-anticipated Federal Environmental Impact Statement on the proposal earlier this month.
CSX wants to expand the leaky, century-old tunnel to allow two-way train traffic and double-stacked cars. The tunnel runs under an 11-block section of Virginia Ave SE and would require street closures and major construction on the surface within yards of dozens of homes for more than two years.
Opponents say the expansion threatens safety because it invites more hazardous cargo to flow more frequently through the heart of their residential neighborhood and only four blocks from the US Capitol complex.
A recent nationwide epidemic of deadly derailments and explosions involving trains carrying Bakken crude oil have heightened concerns. CSX says it only rarely transports single carloads of crude oil through the city and follows voluntarily restrictions on transporting the most hazardous materials such as chlorine gas through the tunnel.
In emails responding to WUSA9 questions, DDOT spokesman Reggie Sanders said the permit was not a "rubber stamp" and was not kept secret during the process.
"As described in the FEIS, DDOT issued CSX a public space occupancy permit in order to resolve the on-going Right of Way issues dependent on the outcome of the NEPA process," Sanders wrote. "This is only an occupancy permit and not a construction permit. CSX will have to obtain a construction permit from DDOT in order to proceed with any construction with the project," Sanders explained.