Thanks to expansion of the Panama Canal, Capitol Hill may be about to get its own Big Dig - a $174 million capital improvement project that will unearth the long-buried tunnel south of the Capitol Building to widen and deepen the antiquated freight line. For those that miss the obvious connection between Panama and DC, the $5 billion overhaul of the Big Ditch in Panama will now make it easier to ship cargo from Asia to the Gulf of Mexico, and from there into the midwest via rail lines, beating out formerly dominant west coast ports as the cheapest point of entry into the American interior. That is, if the rail lines can handle the increased cargo. Which brings us back to Capitol Hill.
In 2008, freight-hauling giant CSX, which owns the tracks that cross the Potomac and mole beneath the Capitol, launched its National Gateway project to improve the capacity of its rail lines, one of which happens to lie under Virgina Ave in Southeast DC. CSX plans to unearth the narrow tube from 2nd Street to 11th Street, beginning in 2011 and continuing for an estimated two to three years. Surely Bostonians are smirking sympathetically, but area residents and business are bracing for the worst.
According to officials from the company, the CSX rail lines that disect DC are some of the most congested on the line. According to the National Gateway website, a variety of factors lead to the decision to expand and renew the current freight system. Population growth, energy costs, and environmental factors will mean increased demand for freight. According to CSX, the current system of tracks, bridges and tunnels is outdated, hence the new plan to widen the tunnel and lower the tracks to allow for double-stacked trains, but in order to access the tunnels for construction, its Virginia Avenue ceiling will need to be removed.
In the late 1800's Congress authorized the B&O Railroad, now CSX, to build the tunnel and own the area below ground, while the federal government retained ownership of Virgina Avenue at grade. As with any major project in D.C., a spiderweb of authorities will have their say over the planned construction. According to National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) Senior Planner David Zaidain, since CSX is applying for federal TIGER Grants to fund a portion of the project, the company will have to comply with the National Environmental Protection Act and the National Historic Preservation Act. NCPC has oversight because Virginia Avenue is technically federal land and is inside the L'Enfant City plan. NCPC will review the concept and give final approval to the public space effects of the project during and after construction. For good measure, the District Department of Transportation will be working with CSX to evaluate impact on traffic.
Assuming CSX obtains the federal grant money and jumps sufficiently through the various oversight hoops, residents on Capitol Hill can expect an extended period of construction and all its attendant pleasures. Among the joys of CSX: new traffic patterns - including temporary bridges connecting the numbered streets and diverted flows from Virginia onto G Street - construction noise, and the unmasked noise of trains running through the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood. For three years. Or more. And that's before planners start getting ideas about what other infrastructure goals could be accomplished while they're at it.
The project is particularly irksome to residents and businesses such as EYA's Capitol Quarters housing development. The new townhomes line the streets near Virginia Avenue and the proposed CSX plan is giving some future homeowners a (possibly justified) case of buyers' remorse. Some would-be buyers have backed off when they caught wind of the area's construction future. EYA Partner AJ Jackson had this to say about the Capitol Quarter community and CSX, "EYA has been in contact with CSX and will be working with the company as well as the District government to ensure that Capitol Quarter continues to be a great community if CSX’s National Gateway proposal goes forward. Our goal is to ensure that any proposal that’s considered includes the needs and concerns of the Capitol Quarter." Like moving massive amounts of freight from the gulf to the north and west. At least Hill residents can console themselves that this will save alot of fossil fuel consumption. And Bostonians will tell them that this too shall pass. But not soon.
Images from the NCPC and DDOT Freight Railroad Realignment Study.
Washington DC real estate news