CSX VAT Opposition Misinforms?

There are many reasons to have major concerns about the proposed project to rebuild the CSX Rail Virginia Avenue Tunnel: the social, economic, and health impacts of a huge construction project at the edge of a swatch of residential neighborhoods, businesses, and recreational areas.  ANC6B voiced its concerns, sought remedies, and requested compensating benefits in its letter in response to the NEPA draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) released last year.  Many other government agencies, organizations, and individuals did the same.  We await the release of a Final EIS in which the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will put forward a “preferred alternative”.  This could be the one of the 3 proposed build alternatives or the no-build alternative in the DEIS … or a hybrid approach.

Meanwhile, a group is working in opposition on the outside of this formal study process.  In promoting a 1/16 community meeting with Mayor Gray, the group raised the following concerns: “presence of 8,000 square feet of asbestos, hazardous materials transport and risk of derailment similar to Willard Ohio and Casselton North Dakota, more than five-fold increase in permanent structural vibration to area buildings, potential for stalled development during the projected 4-6 year construction time frame, and disruptive traffic congestion and closure of area streets and highway ramps.” I respond to all but one of these claims below.  But, I do not understand their mention of a five-fold increase in building vibration once the tunnel is rebuilt.  The data source could be in the DEIS Appendix F: Vibration Technical Report.

The group doesn’t make it clear what their aim is in raising these and other concerns.   Is it to: (1) stop the project from going forward, (2) force the adoption of one of the alternatives removed from consideration earlier in the study, or (3) what?  And, if they don’t get whatever it is they want, will they file a suit against the study’s conclusions, dragging out this multi-year study process for a couple of more years?  (Shades of Hine!)  Meanwhile, development in a part of ANC6B–the Lower 8th–continues to languish, awaiting the final decision on the tunnel project.  West of the Lower 8th, though, where most of the opposition resides, a continuing fast pace of development is predicted by the Capitol Riverfront BID Annual Report 2013.

This is not to say that those stridently opposed to the project don’t have a right to conduct a politicized campaign.  It’s quite understandable as some live on the “front lines” of this project.  But, I don’t have to agree with the way they are using and perpetuating misinformation about what we know about the project.  The effect of this tactic was all too clear at the Mayor Gray meeting on 1/16.  One woman there feared she would end up with lung disease because the tunnel may have asbestos that needs to be removed.  Another was quite anxious that emergency services she needs to call on for her special needs child would be blocked from getting to her house (“everything will be blocked off!!”).  Where do people get these ideas?   Why has no one explained that removal of asbestos has a proscribed protocol these days to prevent impacts to both those doing the work and anyone nearby.  And, what causes people to believe that the city would let CSX block emergency services during the project?  I fault the opponents.  Isn’t it possible to fight a good fight without whipping people up into a frenzy?

Does the DEIS say traffic will be disrupted?  Yes.  Does the study propose a plan to mitigate that disruption?  Yes.  Is it perfect? No.  But, aside from 2nd Street, all north/south crossings of Virginia Avenue will remain open during construction.  Will these streets be closed occasionally and for short periods of time?  Yes.  Will the I-695 exit ramp at 6th Street and on ramp at 8th Street be closed for the duration?  No.  Will each have to be closed for a short time while decking is installed at these intersections with Virginia Avenue?  Yes.  Does the DEIS show special lanes to be set up to provide continuing access for residences and businesses in close proximity to the construction area?  Yes.

Clarity on the Proposed Alternatives

Another bit of misinformation heard repeated at the 1/16 meeting (and earlier at the Congresswoman Norton meeting in November) is that all proposed build alternatives involve train service running through an open trench during construction.  Not (exactly) True.  While all 3 involve open trench construction, in 1 of the 3 alternatives, trains would operate along (all but 230 feet of track) in an enclosed tunnel during construction. Estimated project duration for this alternative is 2.5 to 3.5 years.  But, opponents argue against this alternative because of those 230 feet of open trench train operation.  ANC6B in its letter on the DEIS did not choose among the alternatives, realizing that all 3 build alternatives involve tradeoffs.  Instead, we noted the pros and cons of each alternative and asked for a hybrid.  The opponents claim that an alternative during which train traffic is rerouted elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic region during construction would result in a quicker reconstruction.  In a technical document, the DEIS estimates this alternative would take 2.5 years for construction but the start of the project would be delayed for months to set up all the routing agreements.  The DEIS also details complexities of rerouting freight trains along specific routes and the impacts through other communities that rerouting might cause.  There’s a bit of NIMBY-ism in this one, I think.

Hazardous Materials

Wrapped up in the concerns about the problems of trains running through an open trench, is the issue of hazardous materials transported by CSX.  This issue has long predated the discussions about rebuilding the tunnel.  And, like many controversies of this nature, I doubt it will be settled by this study.  Considerable hazardous materials transportation occurs in the open today in the project area. A portion of the CSX route through DC is above ground and will remain so whether or not the tunnel is reconstructed.  And, trucks carry unknown quantities of hazardous materials along I-695 (parallel to Virginia Avenue) since it is the designated route for all hazardous materials road transport through DC.  Nationally, by the way, trucks carried 53.9 percent of hazardous material shipments by ton in 2007 while rail carried 5.8 percent. The alarms being raised on hazardous materials are diverting attention away from other more probable problems an open trench might cause.  And, I repeat: one proposed DIES alternative does not involve running trains through an open trench during construction.

Rail Accidents

It is highly unlikely that a “derailment similar to Casselton ND” could occur along Virginia Avenue since CSX does not haul single commodity tank car trains through this area like the one that caused that accident.  For hazardous materials transport to be a serious problem, one should ask: Is CSX accident prone?  Data from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) don’t appear to say so.  In 2012, CSX reported 221 accidents or 10.6 percent of the total number of accidents by all freight and passenger railroads.  (That’s a list of 36 railroads plus an “Other” category that had 284 accidents in 2012.)  Among the 5 major U.S. freight railroads (as defined by the American Association of Railroads), CSX stacks up as third in number of accidents behind Burlington Northern Santa Fe (428) and Union Pacific (564).  Norfolk Southern comes in at (191) and Kansas City Southern (37).  But, counts alone are not good for comparisons. Accident numbers need to be normalized in some way to account for differences in operations.  FRA converts the data into ‘accidents/1 million train miles’ for each railroad.  Here’s how the 5 line up: Norfolk Southern (2.02), CSX (2.12), BNSF (2.18), Kansas City (2.99), Union Pacific (3.06).  [It should be noted that railroad accident statistics can be quite complicated to work with as there are many variables and caveats. None of the data here, for instance, include accidents at highway crossings.]

Accidents Involving Hazardous Materials

Of CSX’s 216 accidents in 2012, two resulted in the release of hazardous materials from 2 cars and caused the evacuation of 106 persons.  Two comparisons: Norfolk Southern had 2 hazardous materials releasing accidents in 2012; they involved 4 cars and 154 persons were evacuated.  The same year, Union Pacific had 6 such accidents involving 9 cars in which 3 persons were evacuated.  More data: Between 2005 and 2012, CSX has reported 8 train accidents in DC, none of which involved hazardous materials releases.  CSX did have a train derailment in a rail yard near Baltimore in 2013 that involved the release of hazardous materials; 24 persons were evacuated.


One good point that arose at the Mayor’s 1/16 meeting is burdens vs. benefits.  Specifically, what will the neighborhood and DC benefit from enduring the burden of the disruptions of this construction project for a number of years?  It’s not like construction of the Metro that ended up providing transit service throughout the region.  ANC6B and others have been advocating for a linear park with a pedestrian and bike path stretching from Garfield Park at 3rd Street along Virginia Avenue all the way to 11th Street and beyond.  Included in this request is a major redesign of Virginia Avenue Park.  But, is a linear park that will revitalize a lifeless space and serve all residents both north and south of the Freeway enough?  Is it possible to equalize burdens and benefits?  The community has already been tapping into CSX pockets for a fenced in dog area in Virginia Avenue Park, a new roof for the St. Paul AUMP Church, support for summer concerts at The Yards Park, and so on.  What more could/should we ask for?

This project is so complex with any number of interrelated impacts: noise, vibration, air pollution, traffic, and even rats.  It can be hard to grasp it all.  And, it certainly cannot be explained in sound bites.  Read through comments on the DEIS submitted by many agencies and organizations and you will find an amazing overlapping of concerns and questions.  In addition, there are some unique issues being raised, given the varied expertise of commentators.  All of these are excellent contributions toward making the FEIS a major improvement over the DEIS.  In the end, the FEIS may improve our comfort level about this project but it will never satisfy everyone.  It might help alleviate some concerns, though, if DDOT and FHWA more thoroughly explain the pros and cons of a temporary reroute option that was taken ‘off the table’ in the DEIS.  And, greater protections for seniors living in the Arthur Capper apartments may need to evolve from the FEIS.

Data References (the old-fashioned way in case the links change).  The “home” of Federal rail statistics is at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Office of Safety Analysis.  There you can make hundreds of different queries, slicing data this way and that.  I found, however, that different queries for the same bit of data do not always generate the same number.

  • (2012 accident data): U.S. Department of Transportation DOT), FRA, Railroad Safety Statistics, 2012 Preliminary Annual Report, October 24, 2013, Table 5-1. Available at http://safetydata.fra.dot.gov/OfficeofSafety/publicsite/Prelim.aspx
  • (accidents/1 million train miles) USDOT, FRA, Office of Safety Analysis, 1.03 Overview Charts by Railroad.
  • (hazardous materials accidents) USDOT, FRA, Office of Safety Analysis, 1.01 Accident/Incident Overview.
  • (Accidents in DC) USDOT, FRA, Office of Safety Analysis, 1.05 Accident/Incident Overview Charts by State.
  • (National Hazardous Materials Shipments) USDOT, RITA/Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Special Report: Hazardous Materials Highlights—2007 Commodity Flow Survey.
  • American Association of Railroads, North American Freight Statistics, April 17, 2013, page 2.  Available at https://www.aar.org/StatisticsAndPublications/Documents/AAR-Stats-2013-07-09.pdf


7 Replies to “CSX VAT Opposition Misinforms?”

  1. Fantastic post Kristin. Thank you. I too have been put off by the over-the-top fears of the “Rail Safe” movement and so it is nice to see someone taking a sober look at the risks AND opportunities that this project includes. If we consider only the mile of rail that this area includes, we see – from the data presented above – that there is only a 1 in 500,000 chance that there will be a train accident on that mile in any given year (though, as you note that includes many caveats, like grade crossings, speed, trespassing, and in this case construction).

    As for what else the community should ask for, I think we should try to help the same people who will suffer the burden of noise, lost parking, dust etc… and the best way to do that is to build a sound and sight barrier between those neighborhoods and the freeway. Get CSX to install some of the clear Plexiglas sound barriers like what was installed along Jones Park side of the Wilson Bridge to reduce highway noise in the neighborhood AND to plant trees that block the view of the highway. That will compensate them and make the area quieter and more inviting for years.

    Again, thank you for this look at the issue and for thinking about how to make this work for us.

  2. Kirsten, your characterization in this post and a prior one portraying the DC safe rail folks as pearl clutching purveyors of misinformation will be offensive to anyone who actually knows these DC residents. Those raising questions and alarm about the CSX plans include city planners, national hazmat experts, government researchers, legal experts, and vibration/acoustic specialists.

    To refute their concerns and findings, one should do more than point back to the CSX DEIS. Official responses (available on CSX’s virginiaavenuetunnel.org website or on dcsaferail.org) from respected institutions have found major errors and omissions in this DEIS. Among these: DC Water says the DEIS has “misleading” assumptions and “significant utility conflicts,” and the EPA chides that “there remains a great deal of information that should be shared with the public” (followed by 10 pages of important health and safety questions unanswered by the DEIS). Etc, etc.

    But here’s the biggest problem with your take from my constituent point of view: You ask “where do people get these ideas?” implying that neighbors of the VAT are crazy to suspect the city or CSX might not do right by them or might display breaches in competency. But prescribing a big ol’ “trust fall” and a sunnier disposition about my child’s low odds of being immolated asks a lot of me. A brief look at DC history or American corporate negligence (sadly, there’s always a fresh example like WV) lets one know that citizens getting the short end of the stick is hardly an unrealistic expectation. In fact, that’s what you elected folks are supposed to be protecting us from.

    And speaking of doubts about CSX competency, you mention that mother in a “frenzy”? I know her. A lovely family. Her home in an interior courtyard is only accessible by an alley that begins and ends on VA Ave. And no, CSX has not, to date, given her any concrete answer as to how her alley will remain accessible once they close the street or how traffic would be rerouted during construction, on Nationals home game days, etc. I understand one document they provide rerouted her alley…through an existing home on 4th street. Please tell me again how wrong VA Ave residents are to demand information more concrete and realistic than this? It is a valid concern, and the critique “what causes people to believe that the city would let CSX block emergency services during the project?” is a false question. Is anyone saying a CSX hardhat would block an EMS truck? No. They are saying the city hasn’t presented any kind of public contingency plan, and that is true. Tommy Wells in October released a public letter to the DC Fire & EMS Dept requesting a meeting so they could answer the many unanswered questions about emergency vehicle access and disaster prevention around VA Ave. that have gone unaddressed to date.

    At any rate, all best to you and thank you for acknowledging that there are fair questions about community benefits. Thank you also for creating this forum. However, I remain hopeful that ANC reps will not be assuaged by corporate assurances and I remain grateful that my neighbors are demanding accountability for this project.

  3. In response to MB, the operative letter in DEIS is “D” which stands for Draft”, and the document’s very purpose is to elicit comments, not least what information is missing, what is/may be wrong, what is unclear or vague. Critiquing the DEIS for its shortcomings, which certainly are there , is at best a quixotic exercise. It is the FEIS (“F” = final) that is the critical document. In the meantime, MB and the other concerned parties would be much more effective in basing their arguments on known facts (.e. the 6th exit will not be closed, except briefly). I should also note that it is a one-sided dispute, since CSX and other parties to the EIS process cannot present their views until the FEIS is released.

  4. Commissioner Oldenburg,

    Thank you for the comments as they are truly a breath of fresh air and reason.
    Having attended the recent meetings, I left shaking my head. I understand that people, especially those closest to the project, have reasons to voice their opinion, however, the behavior displayed at these meetings was embarrassing.
    My takeaways included what did they really want, how can you expect answers when the constant heckling was preventing those asked to provide answers a chance to speak and if the tracks were located anywhere else, would they care.
    The DEIS is a draft. I do not expect the District to allow anyone from haphazardly removing Asbestos. There are specific procedures in place. It is designed for feedback.
    Tearing it to shreds and insulting the parties is not a really good way to drive your point home. FHWA runs this show, not CSX and until the FEIS comes out, that’s how it stays.
    Freight has been moving in that tunnel for over a century and will continue to do so.
    Is the mother who was in a frenzy more concerned about death or just access into the back of her house? I was confused. When the Trash Transfer building was taken down, it was down slowly and methodically (probably due to Asbestos). No one seemed to worry about it.
    Not all Alternatives involve running trains through an open trench (see Alt 3).
    Thank you Commissioner Oldenburg for being bold enough to say what others were thinking and shame on those who insult others who’s opinion differ than this safe rail group. Apparently you can have any color you want…as long as it’s black as Mr. Ford said. As long as you agree with this group, no problem.
    I feel for the residents of Capitol Riverfront as their community is in complete disarray.
    My final “rambling” is: Why does the evidence point to this being a clear case of “Not In My Backyard”.
    The real frenzy will come when the FEIS is released.
    Thank you.

  5. I get the desire to push back against a perceived “NIMBY” response from residents, and I’m very pro development. All development carries risk, inconvenience, and negative externalities. These risks to one small group of local residents (in this case, the folks immediately in the vicinity of the VAT) have to be balanced against the benefits that development brings to the community as a whole.

    And there is the point. This project brings an unusually high level of risk economically and safety-wise, and brings NO BENEFITS to the community (the wider Navy Yard/Near SE neighborhood). In fact, it will hinder development in the area. And it’s probably unsafe to significantly increase rail traffic in this area at a time when crude oil shipments by rail are up 8300% over the last decade. And the benefit of this project to the neighborhood, or even to the district, is what? I see the benefits to CSX. I may even entertain the idea that there are benefits to “the eastern U.S.” generally. But that’s not enough for me. The option is and always should be “No Build.”

    I don’t even need to get into all the EIS data and debate the finer points of vibration metrics. No matter how you slice it, the idea that burden/benefit balance of this project for the community could ever even approach 50/50 is laughable.

    1. As Ms Norton said very emphatically at her 1/25/2014 CSX meeting (see article above), a railroad moving through a neighborhood provide NO benefits to that neighborhood. Railroads are part of the Nation’s transportation system and, as such, the benefits accrue to all of us.

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