Since January, 2003
            
 Sliding from Before to After

CSX announced today that it will be investing $160 million of its own monies in its National Gateway project, with most of that money going toward the funding of the expansion of the Virginia Avenue Tunnel, the 107-year-old structure that runs beneath Virginia Avenue from 2nd Street SE to 12th Street SE. With this decision, the company will start moving toward design and construction of the project, first by going through the NEPA process of environmental impact studies, which apparently is going to be spearheaded by the Federal Highways Administration (with support and assistance from DDOT, according to CSX).
Within the next few months there will be an initial public "scoping" meeting, where the parties lay out exactly what needs to be done with the tunnel and why. After a 30-day comment period expires, an "alternatives" meeting will then be scheduled, and this will be the meeting that residents will be the most interested in, because this will be when the design options for the project will first be made public, and will be the stage where CSX will at last answer the questions that so many people who live on or near Virginia Avenue have wanted answered since this project first really hit the public consciousness in late 2009. (Will the trench be completely uncovered? Will we be able to get into our alley? How will firetrucks service our block? What about noise? What about dust? What about traffic? What about the 6th Street exit off the freeway?) And at a meeting this afternoon, representatives from CSX didn't suddenly decide to answer any of those sorts of questions, deflecting them as ones that will be addressed at the alternatives meeting.
The CSX briefers today emphasized that they feel "sooner is better" for getting the project underway, with the expansion of the Panama Canal launching in early 2015 being one of the drivers of their decision to invest their own dollars rather than continuing to search for federal or state monies to pay for the project. (And, perhaps to ward off an expected line of criticism, they also made sure to mention that using their own money was in no way an attempt to sidestep NEPA.)
There's no firm date as to when construction might begin, owing to the reality that federal reviews don't always happen on a metronome-like timetable, and that then there will be permitting processes and other agency reviews (such as going through the National Capital Planning Commission and the city's historic preservation reviews). But it would seem that spring 2012 would be a likely target time if there are no big roadblocks thrown up, especially given that Panama Canal 2015 date and that CSX says they expect the project to take about three years. With other construction happening at or near the tunnel's path, including the rehab of 225 Virginia, the 11th Street Bridges reconstruction, and perhaps the start of some portion of William C. Smith's mixed-use project at 2nd and H, the very northern portion of the neighborhood will certainly continue to be knee-deep in heavy machinery for a number of years (and CSX says that they are coordinating with those other projects).
If you are just tuning in and aren't up to speed, CSX is wanting to add a second track to the tunnel, ending its status as one of the last (if not the last?) stretch of single track in CSX's east coast operations. They also plan to lower the floor of the tunnel to allow for double-stacked trains, vastly increasing the amount of cargo they can move through their system. (You can read their press release for what they consider to be the benefits of this expansion and all of the $850 million National Gateway project.)
As I've said, there isn't much in the way of specifics as to how exactly the project will be configured, other than we know there will be a parallel track running in an open trench, and that Virginia Avenue itself will be closed, but with bridges across the construction at 3rd, 4th, 7th, and 8th to allow the movement of north-south traffic. (This would mean that vehicles exiting the Southeast Freeway at 6th Street would need to turn north under the freeway to then move toward any final destination.)
My post from a walking tour of the project last July has some of the (few) details so far announced on the project, but focus will now turn to the NEPA public meetings as the point where the real specifics of the project and its impacts will be revealed, and where residents will be able to voice any and all concerns, problems, anger, threats of litigation, etc. Until then, feel free to use the comments here for all that! You can also read my previous CSX posts for more background and details on the project up to now.
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