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Commuters in for Traffic Troubles

A planned upgrade of a train tunnel that runs underneath Virginia Avenue Southeast could create a headache for Capitol Hill commuters from next year through 2015.

The first in a series of public information meetings about the project will be held Wednesday. The construction is slated to start in summer 2012 and will take place about one mile southeast of the Capitol.

In the affected area, Virginia Avenue Southeast is split into eastbound lanes, which run along the south side of the Southeast Freeway, and westbound lanes, which run north of it. The tunnel is underneath the eastbound lanes, and they will likely be closed during construction. It’s uncertain whether the westbound lanes will be affected.

A ramp from eastbound Virginia Avenue to Interstate 295 may also be closed.

The specifics about the closures and the timeline haven’t been finalized, but commuters who travel through the area should plan on seeking new routes.

“A lot of that congestion would get pushed north toward the Capitol as people look for alternate routes,” said Jacqueline Dupree, whose award-winning urban planning and development blog focuses on a portion of the District’s Southeast quadrant. “People traveling to Capitol Hill from Virginia will have to share exit lanes with people headed to the Navy Yards that are taking an alternate route. Also, the tunnel opens up at Garfield Park, so there will be a lot of noise and construction around there.”

CSX Transportation Inc. owns and operates the 4,000-foot-long freight train tunnel that runs beneath Virginia Avenue  Southeast for nine blocks, from Second Street Southeast to 11th Street Southeast. 

The dual-rail network collapses to a single track at the tunnel, and the proposed project would lay a parallel track to ease a chokepoint of train traffic that the company says causes delays throughout the Washington region. CSX also wants to increase the tunnel’s height to accommodate double-stacked freight trains, which it says are “more environmentally sensitive.” 

The project is expected to take three years to complete. In order to keep the rail lines open to train traffic during construction, a trench with temporary tracks will be installed nearby.  

“We know [commuter traffic] is an area of concern,” CSX spokesman Chip Dobson said last week. “As our plan develops, we may find it desirable or necessary to study those things that may be impacted, but we could conceivably have an alternative that doesn’t have that impact. We’re assessing a number of different concepts.”

Still, CSX has already petitioned the District Department of Transportation for a permit to close the Southeast Freeway/I-295 ramp at Eighth Street and Virginia Avenue Southeast, and Dobson acknowledged the location of the tunnel likely means the section of eastbound Virginia Avenue will have to be closed.

While CSX won’t address the specific effects of construction until later this year, the public information meeting from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at Van Ness Elementary School will be an opportunity for residents to get an overview of the project.

“We want people to know that this [public meeting] isn’t a one-time deal,” Dobson said. “We’re not going to present this and then disappear. The [National Environmental Policy Act] requires us to keep the public involved, and with good reason. We’ll be presenting and soliciting input from the public the entire way.”

CSX set up a website, VirginiaAvenue, to track the project’s progress, but some residents want more specifics.

Dupree plans to attend this week’s meeting. “But for someone like me who has paid close attention to the scope of the project, I don’t expect to learn anything new,” she said. 

She hopes to find out more about closures and the location of the trench at future meetings. CSX “has held this all very close to the vest — they know they’re not required to tell the specifics yet, so they’ve opted not to,” she said.

Dobson said the company is not ready to address the finer points because so much about the project is still up in the air.

“We’re still very early in the permitting and environmental process,” he said. “At this point, we know that we want to turn a 105-year-old tunnel into a new, double-tracked, double-stacked tunnel, but there are still some engineering unknowns. We’ve intentionally not released a plan because we’re developing it as we go through the NEPA process.”

Rebuilding the tunnel is just one step in CSX’s $850 billion National Gateway project aimed at opening up rail networks across the Atlantic and Midwest. The company has committed $575 million of its own capital, and states that stand to benefit from the project — such as Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia — will put up the balance.

The company hopes to finish the railway renovations in time for the completion of an expansion of the Panama Canal in 2015, which is expected to bring more freight traffic through Atlantic ports.

Whatever potential inconveniences the project will hold for commuters, residents will have it worse, according to Dupree.

In particular, she pointed to the new Capitol Quarter development, part of which runs along Virginia Avenue between Third and Fourth Streets Southeast. Those homes are likely to be affected by the trench, she said.

“The downside actually doesn’t have much to do with traffic around the Capitol,” she said. “It’s more to do with the fact that there’s a block of newly constructed $750,000 town houses that will have an open trench running into their yards and trains running day and night. Those people are concerned about how they’ll get to their garages and whether emergency vehicles will be able to make it out there.”

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