Norton Meets on CSX VAT. Again.

Congresswoman Norton’s second meeting with the opponents of the CSX Virginia Avenue Tunnel Reconstruction Project on 1/25 started out oddly.  The regular cast of CSX, DC Department of Transportation (DDOT), and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) officials were all assembled.  But, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was the invited guest to apparently explain the agency’s comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and EPA was a “no show.”  Ms Norton was clearly not pleased as she told the audience (1/2 the number who showed up for the Mayor) of the many conversations between her office and EPA in the last few days.  To no avail.

The meeting–without its intended focus on environmental and health issues–was reduced into one more session with the opponents raising most of the same issues, several times demanding CSX answer Yes or No to questions/comments they posed (as if this was a trial courtroom).  When CSX tried instead to provide complex responses, people in the audience shouted back.  Neither Mr. Michael Hicks of FHWA, the lead agency on the NEPA study, nor Mr. Faisal Hameed of DDOT, fared much better with the crowd.  Some of it of their own making.  Why wasn’t there a clearer explanation of the steps in the NEPA process and of “intermodal container trains” and an explicit comment that while containers can be stacked one on top of the other, tank cars cannot be, and so on …?  The opponents did apparently surprise CSX officials by quoting news articles the officials hadn’t apparently read (see Yorktown, below).  And, Mr. Hicks admitted that he wasn’t aware of an National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) “Safety Recommendation R-14-1 through -3” that came out on 1/23 on rail transport of crude oil in “unit” trains, those with up to 100 tank cars of this single commodity.  That didn’t set well with the crowd since they have been dissecting this document for days.

The opponents won’t believe it but CSX said at the meeting it routed a total of 3 tank cars of crude oil through the VAT (that’s one tank car each in 3 trains among all the trains routed through the tunnel in one year).  CSX said they expect to carry about the same in 2014.  Read the excellent New York Times 1/26 article “Accidents Surge as Oil Industry Takes the Train” and you will discover how complex this emerging national problem is, brought on by the development of new oil fields in the West and production rising faster than crude oil pipelines could be built.

The opponents have newly found information about a Yorktown VA project and apparently assume it proves that CSX was lying about future crude oil shipments through the tunnel.  According to the local Yorktown press, this project is to convert a defunct oil refinery into a crude oil terminal whereby rail shipments of crude can be brought from the West and loaded onto ships for transport to refineries along the East Coast.  It was first proposed in 2012 by new owners of the refinery and at that time Plains All American Pipeline said CSX would be shipping crude to the location by 2013.  CSX said at the meeting that the facility wasn’t yet ready for shipments and, in any case, they plan to route these trains from Chicago south to Yorktown avoiding the District.  (The most recent posting I could find via Google about the status of this Yorktown facility was dated August 2013.)

Another discussion at the meeting was on alternative routing of CSX trains, both temporarily during construction and permanently.  Monte Edwards, a member of the Committee of 100 that submitted lengthy comments on the DEIS on this subject, presented his view that enlarging the tunnel and thus enabling more train traffic to flow through and on the Long Bridge over the Potomac would hinder future expansion of commuter and Amtrak train traffic, which also uses the Long Bridge.  CSX countered that it is the current single track through the tunnel that backs up commuter rail because freight trains have to wait outside the entrance to the tunnel on the west side for  westbound trains coming through the tunnel.  The reconstructed tunnel with two-way tracks will eliminate this problem, say CSX, and the increased height of the new tunnel will allow double stacked container trains, reducing their total number, and thereby reducing  congestion on the Long Bridge.  Edwards also said a comprehensive regional train traffic study should be done before the tunnel is enlarged.  DDOT’s Hameed countered that 3 studies now underway and coordinated within his office would effectively do this.

Ms Norton did shut down a discussion on the complaint about a lack of benefits to DC from this project.  She noted that communities do not individually benefit from rail traffic and shouldn’t expect to do so.  Rail is part of the Nation’s transportation system and the benefits of that accrue to us all.  She also repeated something she said at her 11/25 meeting about how changes in routing will run into serious rejection by affected communities.  Ms Norton noted that she has meetings set up to talk with the Federal Railroad Administration, Homeland Security, and NTSB.  CSX said it will be meeting with Homeland Security to discuss providing the agency with real time information on hazmat moving through the tunnel.

Conclusions: After attending countless number of meetings on the proposed CSX VAT project, starting in 2009 before the NEPA study began in 2011, during the NEPA process, and now in the post-DEIS phase of 3 meetings organized by opponents to the project hosted by public officials, I conclude that the subject matter has now been so muddled, the opponents so radicalized, and their distrust of project proponents and study leadership so heightened that the Final EIS–no matter what it says–will be “dead upon arrival.”  (At the Norton meeting, opponents were already asking for a “supplemental” FEIS.)  Of course, if the FEIS chooses the temporary rerouting option and/or bans hazmat transport during construction, then a portion of the opponents might be happy.  But, if it doesn’t choose the No Build option, than those proponents among the opponents will be up in arms.  And, in the larger picture of things, those who are in this fight to ban all hazmat (rail) shipments through DC, won’t be happy until that occurs.  (The last time DC tried this, I think, the commerce cause of the U.S. Constitution got in the way.)  And, to raise this to a higher level yet, there are those who want to get rid of the rail tracks all together.  Period.  This is a superb urban planning option for DC except for the fact that the tracks need to go somewhere, through some community.  (I, for one, would like to get rid of the elevated I-695 Freeway in the name of urban planning but I am not going to hold my breath on that one.)

I think all that can possibly be said about this proposed tunnel reconstruction is out there in the public domain.  My hope is that the FEIS is released before we have anymore public meetings hosted by political leaders.  DDOT/FHWA would only say, when Ms Norton asked about timing of its release, that they are “still working on the FEIS”.  Maybe they should wait to release the document on April 2 when the first phase of the 2014 DC election campaign season will be over.
 

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