A New Design for Virginia Avenue Park

At the 3rd community meeting on Virginia Avenue Park, Lisa DelPlace of the award winning landscape design firm Oehme van Sweden presented this vision of what the Park can become:

2017_0204_Virginia Ave Park_Page_10More than 20 residents, businesses, developers, and community leaders participated in the meeting on February 4, 2017.  They judged the new design as inspired, one that would ensure the creation of a Park meeting the needs of a changing neighborhood.

This design adds a sidewalk and street trees along 9th Street SE, creates a central entrance to the Park at 10th Street SE, enlarges the multi-purpose open space, and adds lawn terraces along the north side for use by kids and adults.  The Community Garden is reshaped into a rectangle and moved slightly eastward to accommodate the new sidewalk and a curb cut for its use on 9th Street.  The shared bike/pedestrian path and dog park segment of the Park remain unchanged.

The full presentation: Virginia Ave Park Feb 4 Presentation
ANC 6B 3/14 Letter to DDOT-DPR on VA Ave Park

Most of Virginia Avenue Park (located between 9th and 11th Streets SE and Potomac Avenue SE)  is currently out of use because of the CSX Virginia Avenue Tunnel (VAT) project.  Once the tunnel project is completed, CSX has a responsibility to renovate the portion of the Park that has been disturbed by tunnel building.

Beginning in October 2015, I began a community process in collaboration with the Department of Parks & Recreation (DPR) and CSX to create a “new” Virginia Avenue Park, as detailed in my November 2015 article: A Design for Virginia Avenue Park.

A year later, at an October 2016 meeting, a group of stakeholders met again to continue the design process and discuss a multitude of issues.  Here is a Summary of that Meeting
during which the group selected this conceptual plan for the future Park:

Virginia Avenue Park_Option B_011416
There is one major hitch in all this Park planning.  Back in 2015, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B asked the DC Department of Transportation and DPR to extend the existing Park eastern boundary to 11th Street.  The principals, joined by the National Park Service, are still in discussion about this request as they endeavor to resolve all the land transfer/ownership issues.

ANC6B Nixes $250K Fund

At its Special Call meeting on July 10th, ANC6B voted 6-0 to send a letter to DDOT and FHWA in response to the Virginia Avenue Tunnel Final EIS.  I was there.  I should have voted in opposition.  In the light of day I regret not doing so.

Most of the letter is fine–continuing the same themes of 4 previous VAT letters–but at this meeting, I had voted in opposition to two amendments: the VAT Mitigation Fund and the Hazardous Materials clause.  For very different reasons.

The haz mat clause was crafted on the fly and sub amended several times.  By the end, I was not sure what the final clause said.  I voted against it.  I also felt that the clause–whatever it said–was sending a message to the entire DC Government and that our FEIS letter was the wrong place for it.  A better place would have been as a follow up to the ANC’s March letter to Mayor Gray.

On the $250K: The FEIS provided this money to ANC6B (and another $250K to ANC6D) to use as mitigation payments to residents and businesses who end up “inconvenienced” during tunnel construction.  Granted this offer is problematic.  First ANCs can’t accept more than $1,000 per year from any one source.  Second, imagine trying to define “inconvenience”.  So, it is clear that the ANC couldn’t be the receptor but that is not to say that ANC6B could not designate that these funds go to a 3rd party.

I tried to soften the strident language of Commissioner Peich’s amendment on the funds.  All I wanted was more time.  The Commission in voting as it did denied me the opportunity to research options and to get feedback on the fund concept from my constituents who live and work near Virginia Avenue Park, right in the heart of the tunnel construction.  I just needed more time.  There was no reason for the ANC to reject these funds at this time.  They wouldn’t have been paid out by CSX until “major construction activity” begins.

Any body want to guess how far away that is?  Given that those who are opposed to this project in any form will probably sue once the Record of Decision is issued, major construction could be a year or more away.  And, when it does happen, my ANC6B04 constituents won’t be able to apply to a migration fund for some relief.  These are the same people, by the way, who have been directly inconvenienced by the building of the 11th Street Bridge in the last five years.

NOTE: Two of my colleagues reject my interpretation of the impact of the fund language in the ANC letter.

ANC6B Adds Meeting on FEIS

ANC6B has called a special meeting to discuss and vote on comments on the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Virginia Avenue Tunnel (VAT) Reconstruction project.

The meeting is Thursday, July 10th, at 7pm.  The location is the National Community Church, 535 8th Street SE (Barracks Row).  There is a link to the ANC’s letter on the DEIS in the paragraph on this project on my “Tracking ANC6B Issues: 2014” page.

Personal comment on the July 1 FEIS meeting held by DDOT and FHWA, who are managing the EIS process: Those who are fighting “tooth and nail” to oppose the reconstruction project will use any argument–whether supported by the facts or not–to try to prove their case and, I think, will not at this point believe anything said to refute their claims.  DDOT and FHWA spokespersons at the meeting seemed to have been blindsided and did not prove to be especially articulate in defending the FEIS and its preferred alternative in response to the questions thrown at them.

Where is our political leadership?  Someone needs to step in, lower the “temperature,” and provide some rationality.  Perhaps they (Rep Norton, CM Wells, and CM in waiting Allen) finally spoke but I left the meeting after sitting through an hour of hearing what I have heard many times before during this many years and, alas, still continuing process.

BTW, the comment period on the FEIS has been extended an additional 30 days.  The deadline is now August 12, 2014.  And, DDOT/FHWA have scheduled a second meeting on the FEIS for Thursday, July 31.

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.

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


ANC6B Comments on CSX VAT Draft EIS

A project to reconstruct the CSX freight Virginia Avenue Tunnel has been studied for the last two years.  This National Environmental Protection Act study, led by DC’s Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, has culminated so far in a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that was released in July 2013.

At its September 10th meeting, ANC6B voted 9-0 to send a letter with comprehensive comments to DDOT and FHWA on the Draft EIS.  A link to the 12-page letter is below.  Here is a summary:

The Draft EIS presented 4 alternatives, one of which included a “no build” option.  Over the course of the study, many alternatives were presented in public meetings and subjected to public comment and review.  The 4 alternatives in the Draft EIS were the result of that winnowing process.  ANC6B did not support the No Build option.  Nor, did it fully support any of the 3 Build alternatives.  Instead, ANC6B provided a list of criteria that its community would prefer to see in the alternative chosen and presented in the Final EIS.  Thus, we asked for a hybrid.

The community will be impacted in a myriad ways by any reconstruction of the VAT.  In its review of the hundreds of pages of the draft and its technical appendices, ANC6B concluded that maintenance of traffic (for vehicles, pedestrians, and bicycles), noise, and vibration were the most significant.  And, so we devoted a lot of attention to those issues in the letter.

Also, because the path of the tunnel crosses a portion of ANC6B that is in the Capitol Hill Historica District, we emphasized the need to protect the people and businesses and the 150 year old buildings in that area.

And, finally, we were very demanding in the letter that residents and businesses who will endure the 3-5 years of construction receive a number of benefits (or, as the study says “mitigations”) during the post-construction phase.  We want a new linear park with a bike trail and pedestrian walkway stretching along the south side of the Freeway from Garfield Park to Virginia Avenue Park.  And, because it will be torn up during construction, we want a totally redesigned and installed Virginia Avenue Park, one that will serve not just that area but all residents of ANC6B and their neighbors.

The next step in this long process is the issuance of the Final EIS and public hearing and a Record of Decision.  The start of eventual construction will depend on whether the ROD supports reconstruction of the tunnel and, if so, how long it takes to get through the rest of the NEPA process.  Year 2015?

Now … here is the full document: ANC6B Comments on CSX VAT DEIS Sep 2013