Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Joy of CSX: Capitol Hill Braces for Big Dig

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 According to CSX, the current system of tracks, bridges and tunnels is outdated, hence the new plan to widen the tunnel and lower the tracks to allow for double-stacked trains, but in order to access the tunnels for construction, its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


Anonymous said...

while we're at it, can't we reunite the city and put the SE/SW freeway down under in a big dig and...(shall i continue?)... finally big dig 395 north at NY ave so it meets 495 at 95 as was originally planned? the federal stimulus money is there to do it now....why are we waiting? city of dc: strike now while the coffers are hot!

The AMT on Nov 20, 2009, 8:58:00 AM said...

Ken - it sounds almost like you're opposing the CSX construction. Are you actually against it, or just sympathizing with residents and businesses that will have to endure a little bit?

@Anon - completing the original plan to have 395 completely bisect the city would be a horrible idea! Especially when the city and feds are trying to get people out of their cars, the billions that it would cost to extend 395 would be much better spent building a separate Blue Line and/or improving inter-city rail.

Anonymous said...

Agree on not finishing the 395-95 link.
Not interested in spending billions to enable NOVA/MD suburbanites to spew fumes flying under the city to shop at each-others' strip malls.

Meanwhile, an efficient freight rail infrastructure benefits the real economy and takes trucks off of 95.

David on Nov 20, 2009, 2:08:00 PM said...

How much extra rail traffic are we talking about on the CSX Metorpolitan line (toward downtown Silver Spring) because of this?

Ken on Nov 20, 2009, 2:50:00 PM said...

AMT - I am not opposing it, just pointing it out. I would be highly surprised if this lasted two years and did not change in scope. Remember in Boston when they started digging, found wooden pipes, and realized they had grossly underestimated would it would take to build the tunnel? We absolutely should be investing in greener, better infrastructure, in my opinion, but it will be consuming.

Anonymous said...

It will be absolutely wretched for the people living close to this work, but I agree about the value of efficient transport methods for freight. It won't necessarily mean less trucks but it will mean shorter distances traveled

Anonymous said...

I feel bad for EYA and even worse for all those stuck with non-refundable deposits on homes overlooking the canyon. EYA won't be able to sell homes with this pending and underway,and new homeowners have nothing to look forward to but a noisey, dirty, chasm as their front yard for 3-4 years. Ouch.

Que said...

@ The AMT

Couldn't those highways also be used by buses; thats a way of getting people out of their cars.

We all damn sure know that metrorail will never cover the same amount of area that the highway would even if WMATA was given the exact same amount all new stations would be built downtown and not serving a majority of the cities population which does not live there and many don't even work there.

Bedford Empress on Feb 20, 2011, 5:47:00 PM said...

Extending I-395 makes perfect sense by the B&O Route (recommended by the JFK Administartion- yet politically subverted by the 1964 engineering report's gross deviation via longer far far more destructive routes), with the NHAve-PEPCO route in MD, AND undergrounded, with the RR creating a new northern DC Mall.

The status quo is all about keeping the traffic on New York Ave and SE, far away from Catholic University of American which opposes the freeway anywhere near them AND opposes covering the RR because they like being isolated from the east; and keeping it out of tha Masonic Eastern Star property at 6000 NH Ave NE.

See my blog "A Trip Within The Beltway" for the facts about Washington, D.C.'s unbuilt freeways.

Bedford Empress on Feb 20, 2011, 5:49:00 PM said...

As for the CSX/Virginia Avenue project there is no good reason why it should not be made wider to serve additionally as the eastbound lanes of a future underground SE Freeway- would take care of two things with one project.

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