By Ethan Klapper
A rail tunnel that many didn’t even know exists has suddenly become the center of debate in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, as a proposed construction project could potentially cause disruptions – such as noise, dust and potential traffic nightmares.
CSX Corp., a major East Coast freight railway, hopes to expand their century-old Virginia Avenue Tunnel — a tunnel which, along with the Southeast Freeway, serves as the de facto separator between Capitol Hill and Navy Yard neighborhoods.
The residents — the recently gentrified neighborhood is populated with many young professionals with young children — aren’t too happy about the prospects of the added noise, dust and potential traffic nightmares.
Kirsten Oldenburg, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for ANC 6B, whose single-member district would be affected by the project, said increased freight capacity is a “hard benefit for people to grasp onto.”
The project is part of the National Gateway — a program that is designed to increase the flow of freight throughout CSX’s network. According to CSX officials, the tunnel is a major chokepoint for trains that causes delays throughout the network.
“The issue is that we are going to have, over the next 20 years, an increase in freight of 70 percent,” said Bob Sullivan, a CSX spokesman.
The project calls for raising the roof of the tunnel, which will allow double-stacked trains to use it. A second track will also be added to the single-tracked tunnel.
In order for the work to proceed, Virginia Avenue Southeast will have to be torn up. Trains will be diverted onto an adjacent runaround track, which will be in an open trench, railroad officials said. The right of way on Virginia Avenue will be unusable, but cross streets will be passable, thanks to proposed temporary bridges that will span the construction area.
Construction is slated to begin in late 2011 at the earliest, said CSX’s Director of Federal Affairs Stephen Flippin. But that start date is dependent on financing, regulatory approval and an environmental review.
“The benefit that [CSX] is pushing is not fully understood,” Oldenburg said. “People don’t understand the cost of freight.”
A recent monthly ANC meeting had standing room only when many Capitol Hill residents came to voice their opposition to the proposed project during a presentation by Flippin.
“Residents are extremely involved in the community,” Oldenburg later said in an interview.
Some at the meeting said they had put down deposits on nearby condominiums under construction years before they had heard of this project — and now were concerned about their property values. One small business owner said her doggy day care center would become inaccessible during the project.
“The goal of that meeting was to more inform them what we were going to do,” Flippin said. “We wanted to hear their concerns. When we come back with our plan, we can give answers.”
On a recent, unseasonably warm Sunday, Tony Axam and his family were spending the afternoon on the playground at Garfield Park, which is located adjacent to the tunnel’s south portal. Axam echoed Oldenburg and added that community involvement is a function of the neighborhood’s recently changed demographics.
“You have a highly educated population on the Hill and you have people who believe that speaking up changes things,” he said.
For the Axams, eight-year residents of the neighborhood, their concerns largely had to do with the health and safety of their sons who go to Capitol Hill Day school, located across the street from the park and tunnel.
They anticipate that a lot of local concerns will be discussed on the Moms on the Hill listserv, which boasts over 5,000 subscribers and has been active in the past with similar issues. The group even hosts an annual barbecue at Garfield Park.
At the very least, Axam does not want to lose the park completely or have it in a state that is not safe for their sons to play in.
“This is like the best park on Capitol Hill,” he said.
Flippin said that his presentation at ANC 6B was one of over 20 preliminary, informational meetings that CSX has attended about the project. The company has been working around the District for more than 18 months.
“I don’t think anyone would be happy that their lives are going to be disrupted,” Flippin said. “People appreciate that we are alerting them to this early.”