Residents of Southwest Washington, D.C. distressed by CSX Transportation’s plan to expand the Virginia Avenue Tunnel will air their concerns during a meeting with Mayor Vincent Gray on Jan. 16.

“The residents invited Mayor Gray to discuss the issue and he is happy to come and listen,” said Gray spokeswoman Doxie A. McCoy.

The coalition opposing the tunnel is a diverse group comprising residents of various incomes, races and ages hailing from the Capitol Hill/Navy Yard community. The community includes approximately 700 low-income, predominately African-American families; 150 low-income, predominately African-American senior citizens who reside at the Arthur Capper Senior Center; 90 “work force” housing units subsidized by the DC Housing Authority; and 130 market-rate town homes.

Over the last two years, CSX has sought approval for the rehabilitation of the more than century-old tunnel, a 3,800-foot throughway containing a single railroad track with west and east portals near 2nd Street SE and 11th Street SE, respectively.

CSX has argued that the tunnel’s single track is a chokepoint along its Eastern Seaboard freight rail corridor, and that it must be expanded to accommodate expected increases in freight transportation demand due in part to the expansion of the Panama Canal scheduled for next year.

Plans call for rebuilding the tunnel to fit two tracks and making it at least 21 feet high to accommodate double-stacked intermodal freight trains. During construction, estimated to cost $168 million to $208 million and take at least three years, trains will run on a temporary track in an open trench near the site.

Helen Douglas, a resident of the nearby nursing home and a member of the coalition, said the group’s concerns over the project include worries about the transportation of potentially hazardous material through the tunnel, traffic congestion, adverse impact on nearby businesses, potential sinkholes given the proximity to the Anacostia River, sound and air pollution, the impact of vibrations on nearby structures and residents and even the possible presence of asbestos.

“Their bottom line is profits for their shareholders. Our bottom line is our safety and security,” said Douglas. “It is an extremely high-risk project.”

The 71-year-old was especially concerned about the project’s effect on the neighborhood’s young and elderly populations, whom she called “fragile.” At the very least, CSX should nix the idea of the open runaround trench, said Douglas.

“At the minimum, we want them to reroute the trains while they’re doing this,” she said. “We think it’s ridiculous to run a double-stacked train in an open trench while you’re doing construction.”

CSX spokeswoman Melanie Cost said safety remains the company’s top concern.

“In fact, the rebuilding of the Virginia Avenue Tunnel will employ newer construction technologies and practices that will improve the safety of the tunnel, including updated signaling and security features,” she told the AFRO in an e-mailed statement.

According to CSX’S Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which offers three “build alternatives” as well as a “no build” option, the project includes a traffic plan that ensures access to businesses and other facilities and accommodates the special transportation needs of the senior center, such as provisions for emergency response vehicles.

CSX said it would also ensure the open trench is fenced, would employ “best practices” to reduce sound and dust pollution and would take steps to properly dispose of contaminated water and to prevent soil erosion, among other mitigation approaches. Those steps have been guided by community input, Cost said, and the company will maintain a community relations office to ensure open communications with area residents.

“CSX is experienced with urban construction,” Cost said. “Just last year, CSX successfully double-stack cleared a tunnel in a busy Pittsburgh community. There, we worked with adjacent businesses and residents to address their concerns, minimize disruption and safely complete the tunnel construction.”

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO