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Earlier this week the Federal Highway Administration and DDOT gave notice that the in-process National Environmental Policy Act study of CSX's Virginia Avenue Tunnel project will be switching mid-stream from an Environmental Assessment to a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement study.
Since the outcome of an EA is often the instigation of an EIS, this is probably serving mainly to speed up the process and get started on an EIS that most likely would have been needed anyway. The NEPA web site mentions that "[i]f a federal agency anticipates that an undertaking may significantly impact the environment, or if a project is environmentally controversial, a federal agency may choose to prepare an EIS without having to first prepare an EA," both of which would certainly seem to be ways this project could be described.
If you want to see how extensive an EIS can be, check out the ones completed for the 11th Street Bridges reconstruction and the planned South Capitol Street corridor improvements.
The information already gathered and feedback already garnered during the EA process will be incorporated into the EIS. CSX representatives tell me that they expect the switch to add about six months to the environmental review process, and the project's web site now has a Spring 2013 date listed for the Final EIS/record of decision. CSX has always wanted the project to be done in 2015, to coincide with the opening of the expanded Panama Canal, but that timeline is starting to look a bit dicey given that construction has been expected to take 2-3 years.
The public meeting to unveil the chosen "alternative" designs that the EIS is studying is currently being planned. You can read my write-up from the last meeting to see more about the initial group of concept designs, which ranged from expanding the tunnel to building a separate parallel tunnel to leaving the tunnel untouched to closing it and having CSX reroute all their traffic rerouting the double-stack traffic and through traffic out of the city (UPDATED to fix my mistake--there is no proposal that would close the tunnel altogether). (It probably isn't hard to guess which alternatives are preferred by the Capitol Quarter Homeowners Association, with CQ's homes on Virginia Avenue standing mere feet away from any construction.) UPDATE: It's been requested that I mention that, while the CQ HoA letter above lists a group of possible signatories, at least three of them (ANC 6B, Barracks Row Main Street, and the Committee of 100) have all already voted against co-signing the letter.
For those blissfully unaware of this project (I wish!), CSX is needing to expand the 105-year-old tunnel that runs beneath Virginia Avenue between 2nd and 12th streets, SE so that a second track can be added and double-height cars can be accommodated. With initial plans calling for the extended closure of Virginia Avenue and a temporary track in an open trench to run trains through during construction, residents on both sides of the freeway have been greatly concerned about how the work will be designed and carried out, which then spurred DDOT to request a formal environmental review (despite this being a project being carried out by a private entity on a right-of-way that they own some of).
My pile of posts over the past few years on the subject may also be enlightening, or may not.
UPDATE: This flyer just posted on the VirginiaAvenueTunnel.com web site says that the next public meeting, announcing which concepts will be looked at in the EIS, is scheduled for May 21 from 6 to 8 pm at Nationals Park.
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Alex B. says: (5/3/12 9:25 AM)
I completely understand the reasoning of the CQ neighbors (to a degree - construction impact, sure; but operational impact of increased train traffic in a tunnel? I don't buy it), but they do realize they're favoring the $4+ billion alternative, right?


MJM says: (5/3/12 9:38 AM)
Let's not forget the tracks have been there for 100+ years and a super majority of CQ residents knew CSX was planning construction but they signed on the ......line


Shogungts says: (5/3/12 12:15 PM)
Forgive me for my ignorance of railways and if this was mentioned elsewhere, but what does DC get out of this? Do they get some type of usage fee/toll for every train that comes through? What is the incentive for DC to allow CSX to build out the tunnel? Higher tolls, just keeping them from leaving DC altogether?


Gladiator says: (5/3/12 8:36 PM)
Yes, there does not appear to be ANYTHING for DC in this deal. While DC appears to have driven a hard bargain (perhaps too hard) with Whole Foods, e.g., there was at least some clear benefit to the city from having a Whole Foods in Near SE. But while everyone would have to acknowledge that there will be many detrimental impacts to DC of a CSX tunnel project -- the question is only just how MASSIVE will be the scale of the damage to DC economically, environmentally, etc. -- the only gains discussed for the District are promises from CSX of how they will plant a few trees or something in the aftermath of the damage left in the wake of this project.

While the alternatives may involve entail significant expense to CSX, its not clear why DC should care, any more than CSX cares about the impact their proposal would have on the District. This is really a question of how much market share of the NE corridor freight CSX will get, relative to its competitors. Why should DC care if CSX competitors are advantaged because CSX is unable to avail itself of the lowest cost/highest damage alternative for moving its freight through the region?


Gladiator says: (5/3/12 8:43 PM)
Interesting that even though EYA has stated that they did not know about the CSX project until the end of 2010, MJM thinks that a "supermajority" of CQ residents knew CSX was planning construction when they bought their homes.......So they knew something that the people selling them the houses did not know (and certainly did not disclose, as they more recently began to do to potential buyers)??


JD says: (5/3/12 8:50 PM)
No, it was late summer 2009: link While some of the Virginia Avenue houses were still being sold. I know because I talked with some people who were wanting to know more about the tunnel project before buying.


JD says: (5/3/12 8:55 PM)
And, if we go to the photo archive, we can see it was February/March 2010 when the Virginia Avenue homes started getting built: link


BillP says: (5/4/12 9:10 AM)
As part of the NEPA process, CSX posed all of those as legitimate alternatives. Therefore, it is my understanding that the CQ HOA chose to support all of the non-invasive alternatives as its initial position. By moving from the EA to the EIS and as part of the NEPA process, this list of alternatives will be narrowed and modified and so the CQ HOA will obviously modify its position in accordance with the new alternatives.

While I would not presume to speak for the HOA board or all CQ homeowners, many of us feel that some type of tunnel construction is inevitable and we would simply like to mitigate these circumstances so that the worst case but very real scenario does not come to fruition - freight trains running through a completely open tunnel, only a few feet from some homes, that separates much of the near SE neighborhood from points north for three years or more.


Bob says: (5/4/12 9:36 AM)
CQ residents have told me that CSX told them at the first community meeting about the project that CSX didn't even know there were houses there. This would be a great issue for Tommy Wells to oppose. He could re-do Marion Barry's opposition to freeways running through the middle of DC in the '60s. Instead of "No White man's highways through Black man's bedrooms", Tommy could do "No corporate train tracks through gentrifriers front yards." Not as catchy, but it could work.


Alex B. says: (5/4/12 10:06 AM)
@Shogungts:

<i>What is the incentive for DC to allow CSX to build out the tunnel? Higher tolls, just keeping them from leaving DC altogether?</i>

There is no incentive. DC has little leverage. While the right of way is public, CSX (as most railroads do) have very strong legal rights of access via perpetual easements. This makes sense, as if you were running a railroad, it wouldn't be possible to operate if suddenly someone decided they wanted to remove your tracks.

Railroad rights of way vary, either from easements to outright ownership. I'm not sure exactly where this falls, but what is known is that:

a) CSX has the right to operate trains there,
b) they have the right to improve that right-of-way,
c) they are offering to do it with their own money.

Those three things means that, practically, DC has little leverage at all. They can't force CSX to go elsewhere. Perhaps they could provide an incentive to do so, but as I noted, the alternative is a $4+ billion bypass of the DC area. I think CSX's early cost estimates to re-do this tunnel were on the order of $150 million. That's quite a gap to make up.

Furthermore, this is a project of national importance. This and the rail bottlenecks in Baltimore are key elements of the entire east coast freight rail network. The required geometry of railcars, combined with the geography of the east coast and the hills of the fall line, plus the water bodies of the Chesapeake Watershed mean that there are only a few viable options for where tracks can go. Building a bypass isn't like directing trucks to just take another highway.

GGW posted on this a few years back:
link


Andrew in DC says: (5/4/12 12:55 PM)
@Alex B.
"a) CSX has the right to operate trains there,
b) they have the right to improve that right-of-way,
c) they are offering to do it with their own money. "

The greatest issue I have is with point "b". While they do have the right to improve their existing tunnel, the law which provided the B&O the right to dig the tunnel in the first place did not allow for trench work beyond the 5th year past the passage of the law. Nor were temporary tracks permitted at all, for that matter. CSX's proposed plans are in violation of each of these.

Further, CSX's "preferred" alternative requests a significant expansion of the ROW than B&O utilized. Since B&O did not use it, and was, by law, restricted from digging it back up to use it, a case could clearly be made that they forfeited the "full" ROW established in the law, and therefore CSX only inherits the ROW currently in use.

So please, by all means, CSX has the right to improve on their ROW... so long as they abide by the restrictions set out for them.


Gladiator says: (5/5/12 10:01 AM)
JD -

Yes, it was indeed the end of 2009 (not 2010) when EYA claims they were first made aware of the project. But that was still after the fact (and yes, there were a couple of stray news reports before then, but EYA itself is on the record in writing saying they only became aware of the project near the very end of 2009).

What CSX or EYA is not going to tell you is that most Virginia Ave home-owners had to put down huge deposits well before that time. And of course many other CQ homes as well. What you seem to be ignoring is that the VA Ave homeowners were required to put down very large deposits well in advance of when their homes were actually built. THey then faced a Hobson's choice of losing tens of thousands of dollars by walking away, or having a tunnel dug through their front yard.


MJM says: (5/6/12 2:34 PM)
8 May 2008 - CSX released a vague press release that something was going to happen here in DC in the near future - so I have a feeling EYA is being less than truthful about when they really knew what was happening. Its kinda like moving next to an airport and complaining about the noise or future expansion?

link


Alex B. says: (5/8/12 9:21 AM)
Andrew,

There have been decades of legal precedent concerning rail rights of way - I don't think DC would be breaking any new ground by opposing this project.

I don't know how wide their ROW is, but I doubt it's limited to the tunnel alone. Rail ROWs are often far wider than just the tracks themselves.

Those restrictions are all well and good, but again: this is a project of national importance. I don't think the concerns of neighbors give them a right to veto this project. Their concerns should be addressed, of course.

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