Federal Highway Administration greenlights rail tunnel project; local group to sue

Many D.C. residents are fighting proposed plans to expand a train tunnel along Virginia Avenue. (WJLA photo)

WASHINGTON (WJLA) – Anya Landau French loves her community near Virginia Avenue in Southeast Washington.

"It's walkable, it's family friendly," she said.

However, she is not happy about expansion plans for the Virginia Avenue Tunnel, a rail tunnel that is feet from her home. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) approved the 'Record of Decision' on Tuesday, meaning CSX Transportation can now work to get construction permits.

"We have been feeling for many months now that this has been just a forgone conclusion for the agencies we were counting on to really do due diligence," said Landau French.

Neighbor Helen Douglas lives in the senior apartments across the street from the project site and is worried about the three-year project causing noise and debris.

"Some people say, ‘Well, just move.’ Well, moving into another affordable house unit is not that easy in D.C.," said Douglas.

There have been many vocal residents who have voiced concerns in recent years. The D.C. City Council even held a rare, special hearing over the summer to talk about the concerns such as safety of goods being transported, parking issues, noise, and disruption in the community near the construction site.

FHWA said it used public comments to choose a plan that minimizes neighborhood impact. The agency released this statement:

"... It is a major step toward the replacement of the existing Virginia Avenue Tunnel Reconstruction project, and identifies all the alternatives considered, specifies the 'environmentally preferable alternative,' represents community input and provides information on the means to avoid, minimize and compensate for environmental impacts. The ROD was issued following an extended Final Environmental Impact Statement comment period."

Meanwhile, CSX said it still wants to work with community members.

"We are going to continue to engage with the community to understand their concerns. We are committed to doing this safely," said Louis Renjel Jr., CSX vice president of strategic initiatives.

Later this week, the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, an advocacy group, plans to sue to try to block the project.

"Because the Record of Decision did not adopt the changes we thought were necessary in the final environmental impact statement, our only option now is to litigate."

Lawsuit or not, CSX said it is pushing forward.

"We are going to do it right," said Renjel.

The City Council is funding a broader rail study across the District, but that is expected to take time. Southeast neighbors hope the city will temporarily derail this project until that is complete.

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