A Washington DC group planed to file a lawsuit Wednesday, November 12, challenging the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) decision to approve plans to reconstruct the 110-year-old Virginia Avenue rail tunnel, in Southeast Washington DC. The ‘Committee of 100’ is trying to block CSX Transportation’s plan to rebuild the tunnel, which is a critical piece of the region’s rail infrastructure.
After a three-year federal environmental review process, the FHWA last week gave CSX clearance to move forward with the $170-million project that calls for two new, twin tunnels built to allow for double-stacked trains.
The Committee of 100, which serves as a watchdog on transportation issues, questions the legality and transparency of the project’s federal environmental review process and says there were violations of federal and DC law during the process of studying building alternatives for the aging tunnel.
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“This decision is unlawful, premature and problematic,” said the committee’s vice president Monte Edwards. He said the Record of Decision issued last week fails to address safety and security impacts on the community and the constraint on the expansion of passenger and commuter rail service in the District. The project would also mean “years of hazardous construction in a vibrant, growing community,” the group said.
CSX said Tuesday that it believes the project should move forward promptly, but the company is “committed to doing this project the right way, safely, respecting our neighbors and working closely with residents and businesses to minimize impacts and to ensure that they are informed about construction plans.”
The company says that modernizing the tunnel will help alleviate freight and passenger rail delays. After receiving the federal clearance, CSX Transportation is now seeking construction permits from the District Department of Transportation.
The Committee of 100 also is challenging the commitment from DDOT to help CSX with the necessary permits and DDOT’s issuance of a right-of-way permit to the rail company two years ago.
The tunnel project has ignited heated discussions about rail safety and security in the District. Some residents say they are concerned about safety during construction, access to their homes and the environmental impact. But the federal agency concluded that the best option was to replace the tunnel that runs beneath Virginia Avenue Southeast, from Second to 11th streets, with two permanent tunnels built consecutively. The project will allow CSX to expand capacity, and eliminate a bottleneck that impacts rail traffic in the Northeast.
The Committee of 100 says it wants a new review process and it has called for a comprehensive study of the city’s rail transportation. It also wants CSX to consider rerouting options. Although the tunnel is old, the group says there is no need to hurry to rebuild it because the federal agency found that it has “decades” left of useful service.
When the group files the complaint in the District Court for the District of Columbia, it also plans to file a motion for a preliminary injunction to stop any further action until the court issues a ruling.