This special edition of the Politics Hour combined local and national politics live from Slim's Diner in Petworth, Northwest D.C.
Guest Host: Christina Bellantoni
A proposal to retrofit and expand a decaying railroad tunnel in Southeast D.C. is pitting Capitol Hill and Navy Yard residents against one of the largest rail companies in the country. CSX Transportation wants to embark on a three-to-six year reconstruction of its rail tunnel along Virginia Avenue, SE, in order to accommodate growing rail traffic along the Northeast corridor. The work would force existing rail traffic to pass through a residential neighborhood in an open trench and local residents say the proposal doesn’t do enough to address safety concerns. We explore what’s at stake and how this complex local project fits into bigger shifts in the national rail network.
- Monte Edwards Vice Chair, Committee of 100 on Federal City
- Andrew Lightman Managing editor, Capitol Community News
- Curtis Grimm Professor and Charles A. Taff Chair of Economics and Strategy, Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland.
- John Heffner Rail Transportation Attorney
- David Garber Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, Washington D.C. (6D07 - Navy Yard, Ballpark District, Capitol Riverfront)
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Christina Bellantoni, Editor-In-Chief of Roll Call, sitting in for Kojo. Coming up this hour, a decade of development has transformed southeast D.C.'s Navy Yard from an industrial wasteland into a thriving community. But residents fear a proposal from one of the country's largest rail companies could take it all away.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONICSX wants to retrofit a century old rail tunnel that passes under Virginia Avenue SE to accommodate the growing need for freight transportation up and down the east coast. The 200 million dollar reconstruction would last several years, closing nine blocks of Virginia Avenue, and cutting an open trench into the middle of the street for passing freight traffic. The plan supporters say these kinds of infrastructure projects are crucial to the future economic growth in the US.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIBut with trains just a stone's throw from their doorstep, nearby residents fear it could pose threats to their safety and put years of revitalization efforts to waste. Joining me here in studio to discuss, we're lucky to have Andrew Lightman, Managing Editor of The Hill Rag. And David Garber, he is the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the Navy Yard, Ballpark and Capitol Riverfront neighborhoods in Ward Six. Thank you both for being here. Hi Andrew.
MR. ANDREW LIGHTMANGood morning.
BELLANTONIAnd hi, David.
MR. DAVID GARBERHow are you doing?
BELLANTONIGreat. So, I'm sure we're gonna get a lot of calls on this, so I'm gonna give the number out right away. You can join our conversation. 1-800-433-8850. Send a tweet to @kojoshow. Send email to email@example.com and, of course, find us on Facebook and you can engage there, as well. Andrew, I'm gonna start with you. The Navy Yard was once the site of a major manufacturing plant for the Navy. A relic of that era is the Virginia Avenue tunnel, railroad tracks that are still in use by freight trains heading up the east coast.
BELLANTONINow they want to update them. The tracks were part of the Navy Yard long before it was a lively neighborhood, so what argument can residents make against this proposal?
LIGHTMANI think, given the fact that we've recently had a creosol -- well, the argument, in my mind, is a risk/reward argument. Which is what are we getting by re-doing the tunnel as a city versus the risk we're taking by having probably eight years of construction and trains running at grade during the construction process. It's very simple. We've dumped a billion dollars into the neighborhood, probably a conservative estimate of public and private investment in the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood.
LIGHTMANIf we have that construction process going on, how will it impact all of that money that both private the public have invested in this new Riverfront neighborhood? That's number one. And that's just from an economic standpoint. The other issue is safety. We've had a creosol spill recently. There's been a fire in the tunnel in the last 10 years. We've had a coal spill on the Anacostia. If we increase the frequency of freight traffic, what are we looking forward to as a city? This is a city where there's a bollard on every corner, where have -- if you have a bus and drive it up Pennsylvania, you're stopped by the Capitol Hill police.
LIGHTMANAre we gonna stop every freight train that comes into the city and let the Capitol Hill police take a look at this contents before we let them through? I don't think so. So, do we have a safety issue, as well? So, there's a reward -- what's the economics rewards of doing this verse the pain and risk, and then it's the safety issue.
BELLANTONIAnd we're gonna have David Garber jump in in just a moment, but before that, I'm going to introduce our guests who are joining us on the phone. Apologies for not doing that a moment ago. John Heffner is an attorney specializing in rail transportation law. Thanks for joining us, John.
MR. JOHN HEFFNERMy pleasure.
BELLANTONIAnd we also have with us, Curtis Grimm. He's a Professor and the Charles A. Taff Chair of Economics and Strategy in the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. Hi Curtis.
PROF. CURTIS GRIMMHey. Hello.
BELLANTONIThanks so much for being on with us. John, I will go to you for a quick question.
BELLANTONIAs a rail transportation attorney, you've represented both public and private interests in rail development projects like the ones CSX is considering. If you were one of the residents right next to the Virginia Avenue tunnel, what kind of questions would you want CSX to answer about the project?
HEFFNERWell, for one thing, I'd want to know what type of traffic they're gonna move on the railroad. If it's double stacks, and that's my understanding that a lot of the traffic is gonna be -- it's gonna be traffic that would come through the Panama Canal from the Orient, from Asia, and then go to ports on the eastern seaboard to distribution centers in the center of the country. And a lot of that double stack traffic is what I guess I'd call consumer receivables. Television sets, computers, electronics, a lot of clothing. I mean, those are not things that readily catch fire.
HEFFNERBut, if it's, God forbid, ethanol. If it's so-called Bakken crude, which, I mean, the geography isn't right for that. Then I would, if I were living there, I would have some serious reservations. So, that would be the number one question I'd be asking and I've been, I want to say, a student of the railroad all my life. In other words, I like trains. But, trains are noisy, you know? No question about it. And another question I'd be asking, and it's a very expensive question, is why doesn't CSX electrify?
HEFFNERElectric locomotives are a lot quieter than diesel locomotives, and they don't create the type of pollution that a diesel creates. So that would be a second question I'd be asking. I know the costs are very high.
BELLANTONISo, and can you walk us through the kind of steps that a rail company like CSX would have to take before embarking on this kind of update to infrastructure?
HEFFNERWell, in a -- due to a very curious aspect of surface transportation law, somebody who wants to build a new line of railroad has to go to the STB for permission. And aside from the economic regulatory aspects of that permission, a major component is the compliance with NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, and also the Historic Preservation Act. So, when you build a new rail line, you ask the STB for permission to build the line, and they undertake a very significant environmental review.
HEFFNERAnd the outcome of that review could either be you can't build it, or we'll permit you to build it, but you need to mitigate adverse aspects. Or, you can build it, but you can't build it as you originally thought you might build it. You might have to use option D on the routing instead of A, B, or C. So, but I mention this -- kind of a curious aspect of STB law, and that aspect is when you've got an existing line of railroad, and all you're doing is you're improving it, like adding capacity, for example.
HEFFNEROr adding sidings or installing block signals where they don't exist, you don't need permission at all. You just do it.
BELLANTONIThat's John Heffner, an attorney specializing in rail transportation law. We already have a lot of callers on the line who live in this neighborhood or generally in Capitol Hill. Again, I'm Christina Bellantoni, Editor-In-Chief of Roll Call, guest hosting for Kojo Nnamdi. And CSX was not able to provide a representative for this conversation, but they did pass along a statement, in fact, citing NEPA, as John just mentioned. It's kind of long, but I'll make sure that they're represented here and read it to you.
BELLANTONICSX appreciates the ongoing community dialogue around this important project. The Virginia Avenue Tunnel is nearing the end of its useful life and needs to be replaced. CSX has proposed making the tunnel two feet higher and four feet wider to restore double track service and accommodate double stack containers while improving safety. These improvements will primarily serve the intermodal market, which involves shipments of consumer products like clothing, appliances, and electronics.
BELLANTONIWe recognize this project would create disruption to our neighbors in the southeast. We value the input of the communities we serve, which is why we've held nearly 140 meetings since 2008 to share information with the community and listen to and address concerns. CSX is participating in the rigorous National Environmental Policy, or NEPA process, which is being led by the Federal Highway Administration. The process is designed to make sure that any community impacts are understood and addressed before this project moves forward.
BELLANTONIThe next step in that process is a final environmental impact statement, which incorporates comments submitted by members of the community and other organizations during a lengthy public comment period in 2013. CSX looks forward to continuing to work with the Southeast and Capitol Hill communities as this process progresses. So, David Garber, you are the ANC Commissioner for this neighborhood. What do you make of that statement, and how do you think residents are reacting to this so far?
GARBERWell, I appreciate CSX coming forward with a statement about this. We've certainly held many community wide meetings about this. There could be arguments made on either end whether or not those were open meetings or advertised to the very people that this is gonna affect most greatly in the community. At the end of the day, we're a neighborhood that is very used to construction. We are, for the most part, a brand new community. We are used to and supportive of infrastructure upgrades. This isn't a nimby issue.
GARBERWe have historic resources in the community, but for the most part, this is a community that has construction cranes scattered across the landscape right now. What we're asking for, essentially, are better solutions than what we're being offered right now. D.C. needs better solutions and we deserve more than what CSX is offering us right now. The concern, for the most part, from the community, is that it doesn't feel like the process that CSX has gone through to get to the point that they are right now, has been fair to the actual options that should be on the table.
GARBERWhether those options include permanent re-routing of the Virginia Avenue Tunnel, whether it includes temporary re-routing during construction. Those are some things that they haven't actually addressed in any kind of detail. They also, in this statement, and before, are continually talking about how old the tunnel is and how because it's old, it needs replacement. Capitol Hill is a historic community. We're used to seeing things that are old be restored and remain in use. And they have not come forth with any proof that just because it's old, it actually needs replacement.
GARBERWhat they want to do is expand the tunnel and expand their capacity, and that's how we need to shift the conversation.
BELLANTONIYou can continue joining our conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. And James is a neighborhood of this project and has some thoughts to share with us. I understand you're pretty close to that project. Hello, James.
JAMESHello. Yes, the proposed documents actually identified my home as being the closest structure. We'll be about 10 yards away from the tunnel, and the construction will actually go right up into our front door. And they said they would try not to limit access to our front door. So, there's a lot at stake here, but I wanted to actually highlight one of the things that Commissioner Garber just mentioned about the re-routing options. And what CSX has done in their proposal has ignored recent data and used really old data in coming up with what the potential re-routing options should be.
JAMESAnd there are quite a few that the Committee of 100 on Federal City have looked at in great depth. And among other groups who have really looked at either permanent re-routing or temporary re-routing options that were really ignored and dismissed. And so what really -- residents are asking for is a review of a wider range of safer and more reasonable alternatives. And the only way we can get that review at this point, is if the D.C. government selects the no build option. So, I just wanted to make the point that District residents and the neighborhood residents aren't just picking up their pitch forks to say, oh, no build because we don't like construction.
JAMESWe're saying, look, no build is the only option that sends them back to the drawing board to look at safer and more reasonable alternatives that don't have the severe impact on the community, and so the health and safety of those who live around it. So, that's the point I just wanted to make about that.
BELLANTONIThanks for your perspective, James. And I should point out that we will have somebody from the Committee of 100 on Federal City, Monte Edwards, joining us later in the hour. But now we're gonna turn to Curtis Grimm, who again is a Professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. Curtis, the Virginia is 100 years old, as we mentioned. CSX says this infrastructure is decaying, it needs to be updated, saying that the tunnel doesn't have the capacity. Why are these things important that CSX is stressing?
GRIMMYeah. My perspective, having done research and been involved on real issues for many decades now is that a strong rail freight system is absolutely vital to our economy, absolutely vital to our environment. So just kind of a broader context, I think, on this project is useful. We know that railroads compete, especially for this type of container traffic. They compete with trucks.
GRIMMIf CSX has a very efficient modern infrastructure and, again, particularly, they've got to be able to carry these double-stacked trains which are the key this intermodal traffic moving efficiently. They can take a lot of traffic away from trucks. And we can take all the trucks that I-95 corridor. And we know that does a lot for reducing congestion. It improves safety, and it's -- trains are much better for energy consumption, much better for the environment than trucks.
GRIMMSo one of the aspects that's very important in this context is that railroads are very friendly towards the environment, vis-à-vis trucks. And that's what's -- there are -- railroads are involved in a very steep competition with trucks, though, and they have to cost effective. They have to have modern infrastructure. I think the second aspect of the context I'd like to point out is we are in this country in an infrastructure crisis.
GRIMMAnd a lot of people have talked about that. But we are in an era of globalization. We're competing with other countries. We all know this. We're -- which country is going to get jobs, who's going to do better economically? It's where you have a business sector that can produce goods and services in a very cost-effective manner. Transportation and infrastructure is absolutely vital for businesses being able to compete in the global economy.
GRIMMSo, we need to address along a number of facets this transportation infrastructure crisis that we have. And one of the benefits you have with private sector railroads, as in this case, proposing infrastructure investments and enhancements is they will put up their own money to do this, so you don't have the kind of funding constraints that keep up from addressing and, in meaningful ways, our highway infrastructure crisis, for example.
GRIMMSo, anyway, it's just some elements of perspectives that there really are tremendous advantages to the macro-economy, to the environment of having a very strong transportation infrastructure.
BELLANTONIThank you, Curtis Grimm. David Garber, real quick before we go to a break.
GARBERYeah, I just wanted to actually with pretty much everything that Mr. Grimm just said. But I don't believe that it actually addresses the real concerns here. This -- what Mr. Grimm just said represents basically what CSX has been telling the community all along, that we will redo the Virginia Avenue tunnel how we want to do it or we are causing environmental hazards by forcing trucks to be on the roads. We're not supportive of train infrastructure.
GARBERReally, you know, this is a community, we love trains. We've had freight trains in the neighborhood for a long time. We love heavy infrastructure. We love sustainable transportation. But to say that the -- to say that redoing the Virginia Avenue tunnel the way that CSX wants to do it through an open trench, which is extremely dangerous for the community. Saying that that's the only way to do it is really stating a falsehood, because they have not explored the options that could be safer for D.C. and for the immediate community.
BELLANTONIWe're going to come to Andrew Lightman, managing editor of the Hill Rag when we get from a short break and continue our conversation about the Virginia Avenue tunnel. Stay tuned.
BELLANTONIWelcome back. I'm Christina Bellantoni, editor in chief of Roll Call, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi today. We're talking about the proposed Virginia Avenue tunnel project. And I'm joined here in studio by Andrew Lightman who is managing editor of the Hill Rag. David Garber, the ANC commissioner for the Navy Yard, and on the phone by rail transportation attorney John Heffner and School of Business at the University of Maryland professor Curtis Grimm.
BELLANTONIAnd I'm going to go right to Andrew to respond to some of the things we heard right before the break.
LIGHTMANI want to talk again about the risk/reward equation here. Let's talk about the fact that the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood in southwest, also by extension are two neighborhoods that historically have been isolated by highway and rail. And that isolation contributed to very, very low levels of economic development and had a tremendous impact on those neighborhoods. If we dig this trench, it will have a similar kind of imprint -- scar.
LIGHTMANIt will create a scar on the landscape that will isolate the neighborhood in a way that the highway has. We dumped a billion dollars into the neighborhoods. We're south of the freeway. We're about to jump another billion dollars into southwest. We're looking at a construction situation where we have a south Capitol bridge trying to handle dump trucks from southwest development.
LIGHTMANAt the same time, they handle dump trucks from all the developments, many that are down in the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood. It's a very tiny area. there are very few streets. There's this enormous amount of construction. If we destroy the goose that lays the golden egg and screw up our stadium, which we have invested $700 million in, how is -- with the CSX construction, how are we going to benefit from that at the end of this?
LIGHTMANWhat is CSX going to give us that outweighs the risk of screwing up all of that development?
BELLANTONIWell, join our conversation and tell us if you expect this project to personally affect you and how. Join us at 1-800-433-8850. Send a tweet to @kojoshow. Email firstname.lastname@example.org like Jonathan in Washington, D.C. did. He says, "It appears that at a local and federal level, government is considering legislation around railroad transportation of toxic and explosive chemicals and fuels, especially in areas that are heavily populated."
BELLANTONI"Until companies provide more secure rail cars and until safety issues are resolved from a public safety perspective, CSX seems premature in its efforts." We've got a lot of people sort of on the same page here. David Garber, what's the timeline here? How are we expecting this to unfold over the next year?
GARBERSo some of the timeline is still a little bit unclear because we're not sure, if this were to be approved, when the actual construction will start. What we've heard are -- is that this project could last up to six years, which in construction terms means six-plus years. And this is a project that is located -- squeezed right between a freeway, an elevated freeway, and a bunch of mixed income townhomes, a low-income senior building, Marine barracks and some offices for the D.C. government.
GARBERThis is a project that is going to significantly affect people no matter how long the timeframe is. And it's going to significantly impact the economic development that's on its way. This is a neighborhood that is completely under construction right now and has so many amenities that are yet to appear. There's a Whole Foods actually that faces the proposed construction site that hasn't gone into construction yet, but I know that that developer is concerned, as with any developer who's facing a project, about what such an open trench would mean for a construction of their project.
GARBERThis is also a neighborhood filled with a completely diverse set of residents, age diverse, race diverse, income diverse. That was a very intentional thing that D.C. did when it redeveloped this neighborhood. It used to be a place where there are mostly long-income subsidized housing projects, nightclubs, auto repair shops, things like that, industrial uses. You see this put a significant investment into this neighborhood.
GARBERAnd now, it seems like it's sort of bending over backwards towards a billion dollar corporation without really any positive impact for the city. Nobody's proved why this needs to happen, where they're planning for it to happen. And D.C. does, at the end of the day, have power over whether or not this happens. According to the D.C. Environmental Policy Act, we can come out with our own record of decision on this project.
GARBERWe can say that we're choosing the no-build option. And, again, just to be clear, choosing no build sounds like a nimbi move. It sounds like we don't want this project and we're not going to offer any solutions. But really, no build states that they have to come back and give us more options that are actually sustainable for the community, safe for the community and taken to account the actual options that are out there, including rerouting.
BELLANTONIBut, John Heffner, an attorney specializing in rail transportation joining us on the phone. What is the economic argument here, though? Can you tell us a little bit more about the role D.C. plays in CSX's East Coast rail network and the fact that they're anticipating growth in this region?
HEFFNERYeah. Let me say a couple of things. First of all, as to whether the D.C. version of (word?) could affect this project is inspected with the what we call preempted by federal law and any actions that the D.C. government would take, D.C. such being the corporative state would be preempted by federal law. I think we have a kind of a, what I'll call an overarching issue in this country with transportation generally, including rail.
HEFFNERAnd that is despite what legislation might say in the preamble, we don't have a national transportation policy, and that's where we need to begin. I mean, that doesn't really help either the residents nor does it help CSX. But this problem -- I've seen this issue in Cleveland during the Conrail acquisition by NS and CSX where the affected neighborhoods were primarily low income. So we need to start with a kind of a broad concept.
HEFFNERAnd that would come out of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Second, and even though I am very sympathetic to the railroad point of view and I absolutely agree with what Mr. Grimm or Professor Grimm had to say, CSX does have some routing options. And if, for example, they have -- they want to send a freight train from the port of Wilmington in North Carolina to the Midwest, I'm not sure that a routing through D.C. really makes a hell of a lot of sense.
HEFFNERThey have routes that go from, say, the Carolinas or Georgia, up through Atlanta or what is called the Clinchfield -- what used to be called the Clinchfield railroad. They have routing through the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia, the Huntington in Cincinnati or up to Columbus, OH. So this route is not their only option. And then the third thing I want to point out is on the proposed route out of the Deep South or ahead of the South really.
HEFFNERThey were taken through D.C., their capacity can strain today, specifically on what the CSX calls the A-Line, stands for Atlantic Coastline. The route that goes up to Rocky Mount and places like Charleston. It's -- while it used to be double tracked, say, 30, 40 years ago, south of Petersburg it's single track with some double tracked sections and some passing tracks. So this has adversely affected Amtrak's ability to run its New York/Florida trains on time.
HEFFNERSo adding the additional capacity really is sort of a, you know, until they add capacity down South, they really don't have the ability to run the capacity through the District of Columbia.
BELLANTONIThank you, John Heffner. Curtis Grimm, so, why would rail be growing right now? Let's sort of get at that issue. They're saying that this is a time of expansion.
GRIMMWell, we've had a tremendous renaissance in the railroad industry, again, going back a few decades. In 1970s, railroad were kind of given up for dead and a lot of bankruptcies and looked like we are going to have to nationalize the whole railroad system. But with the deregulation of the rail industry began in 1980, there's been a tremendous renaissance in railroads and we have to give the railroad industry a lot of credit.
GRIMMThey have gone out and cut costs. They've cut costs by getting rid of abandoning a lot of the excess track that was built, again, back in the 1800s when railroads didn't have any competition. They've been very innovative. They have been very competitive. And railroad traffic is growing and rail industry has a bright outlook because they have managed their business very well, because they've gone out after their competitors.
GRIMMAnd, again, particularly for this intermodal traffic that there have fierce competitors in the trucking industry. But traffic is growing because they've done a good job in terms of providing service, cutting costs, giving attractive options, vis-à-vis trucks, to their customers. So, again, I think we are looking at overall growth in rail traffic both as the economy grows. Of course, you're going to have transportation services growing along with the economy.
GRIMMBut I also think we've got to look at kind of the future here. We know that highway congestion is getting worst and worst and worst. And we know that we're having a real hard time and not much prospect of building new highways. So railroad traffic is going to continue to grow and needs to continue to grow, vis-à-vis truck, as we have worst and worst highway congestion, as we get more and more concerned about the environment.
GRIMMThat's where railroads are primed to step in and to be a very strong source of growth in those freight transportation services.
BELLANTONIThank you, Curtis Grimm. And certainly if the nation's number one commuter rail fan, Vice President Joe Biden, would like to call in, he can join our conversation at 1-800-433-8850. You can also join in and tell us if you think opposition from local residents in the typical nimbi story or if there's more to their concerns. You can also send a tweet to @kojoshow, like our WAMU resident political analyst Tom Sherwood did.
BELLANTONIThe NBC reporter says to us, "Why can't CSX simply reroute rather than rebuild ancient infrastructure through the heart of D.C.? Plus, Hill security concerns too." Not to mention, you know, my role as the editor of Roll Call, we cover the community of people working in this complex. I mean, this is a major commute area. You've got people that go out after work in that area, a lot of different concerns there both from a safety and traffic perspective.
BELLANTONIWe're going to go now to Natalie who has been waiting on the lines. She lives on Capitol Hill. Natalie, your thoughts on this project.
NATALIE...the proposed project. And I just wanted to clarify that we're not opposed to updating rail infrastructure, we're not opposed to moving freight by rail. What we have issues with here is the method of construction that CSX was proposing. That's an open-trenched, running trains in people's homes. We want safer alternatives and that can be part of this process. If the no build option is selected, they can be studied and there's an opportunity for CSX to do the project that they'd like to do and for the people affected by it, the trackside of the community, to feel safer than CSX doing so.
NATALIENow, I have one question for Commissioner Garber. If there is a significant impact on the District, has there been any sort of oversight hearing or official inquiry into the proposal from the D.C. government?
GARBERThere has not been any sort of oversight hearing at this point. Although there is scheduled a D.C. Council hearing on March 25th, I believe. There have been some government officials that have come to the community. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has presented and listened to the community at least twice on this issue to massive crowds, as well as Mayor Gray has come to the community.
GARBERWhen the community was demanding the no build option, actually at that meeting, Mayor Gray said that he would not allow anything to come to the community that was unsafe for the residents. And so, again, myself included and I know many people from the community are asking, Mayor Gray, we need you to step up and we need you to take a leadership role here and say, no, the options presented right now are not enough.
GARBERNo build, come back with options that are actually safer and more acceptable to the community.
BELLANTONISo, Andrew Lightman, you're nodding your head there. Managing editor of The Hill Rag.
LIGHTMANI think it's time for the D.C. council members to step up and hold hearings. Let's see Councilmember Tommy Wells pull in the folks that are responsible for public safety and CSX and talk about what would happen if we have a fire or a rail disaster in that corridor. Let's see Muriel Bowser, who chairs economic development, pull in CSX and also the various developers, and say, "Hey, how are you going to coordinate all of this construction?"
LIGHTMANLet's see Vincent Orange pull in the bid, which he has oversight over, and say, "Hey, how is the bid going to coordinate all the services, given the size of this construction?" And then let's also of course not leave out Councilmember Cheh who chairs transportation. She should have hearings on whether this is necessary in the first place or whether there are alternate routes that we could encourage CSX to do. Let's see the D.C. Council step up.
BELLANTONIAnd we're going to continue that conversation and return to the idea of alternate routes, but also talk about the environmental impacts after a short break. I'm Christina Bellantoni, of Roll Call, sitting in for Kojo. We'll be right back.
BELLANTONIWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Christina Bellantoni, editor in chief of Roll Call, sitting in for Kojo. And we're talking about the proposed Virginia Avenue Tunnel and all of the issues that that's bringing up. Our phone lines are burning up. You can join us 1-800-433-8850. Paul lives in southeast Washington and has some thoughts. Thanks so much for joining us, Paul.
PAULHi. Thanks so much for having me. Where my family lives we can also see the Virginia Avenue Tunnel. And one of the questions I have for all of the guests is while I appreciate all of the concerns that have been raised, you know, all of these issues are issues that have been raised prior to the issuance of the final environmental impact statement. And so it sounds as if people are asked if -- the posing question is if CSX will have to take them into consideration.
PAULSo my first question is, you know, all of these questions will be raised in theory in the final environmental impact statement, one. And the other thing I'd like to ask is where's the community opposition to, say, the 11th Street Bridge construction or the South Capitol Street Bridge construction or even when you think about the wharf? And it does seem like a it would be -- and I've live here and would be impacted. And I can see how our credibility as a neighborhood is affected. So just wanted to throw those questions out there.
BELLANTONIThanks very much for your call. Andrew Lightman, managing editor of The Hill Rag.
LIGHTMANIt's a very simple thing. When we build the wharf, we get something. A wharf. A beautiful amenity that all residents will benefit from. When we rebuild the Capitol Bridge we get something, as residents. When we built the 11th Street Bridge, we got a beautiful local and highway bridge. We get something. What are we getting for this project, vis-a-vis the risk? Nothing.
GARBERI'd also like to just reiterate that this isn't just about construction generally. Again, we're a neighborhood that's very used to construction. This is about the method of construction that CSX is proposing, the safety of that method, and the access that that method is going to restrict for residents who live along and adjacent to Virginia Avenue. There are residents who live literally right in front of this proposed project, who are differently-abled, who require emergency services to get to their homes.
GARBERThere are questions out there that the draft environmental impact statement has not answered yet about how some of these things are supposed to be addressed. What happens when there is a fire in the tunnel -- which happened just last year?
GRIMMIf I could comment, I think this is actually kind of a common problem with our political process. Because it is the case that the cost of this project are concentrated and concentrated in the southeast neighborhood of D.C. The benefits of this project -- and there are significant benefits -- are spread out. They're spread out throughout the United States, throughout the economy, throughout certainly the East Coast. And so you have many people who will benefit from this, who just are not active in the process.
GRIMMAgain, that's an issue that's been pointed out in terms of where you have diffused benefits of any kind of issue where there's some public policy involved but the costs are very concentrated. And oftentimes the benefits are not properly calculated because they are so spread out. Clearly there are strong benefits. There are benefits well outside D.C. And one needs to take a more macro perspective on policies like this.
GARBERA macro perspective, but also acknowledging the way that they're proposing to do this construction is not the only way that they could do it.
LIGHTMANAnd also, if we're going to take a macro perspective, then what about insuring the city against the very real risks to its billion dollars or more of local investment that has been put in these neighborhoods? The entire weight of D.C. development is moving south onto the waterfront. That's what you were talking about jeopardizing. So if you're going to jeopardize part of that, then you need to insure us, as a city, against that risk. And I don't see CSX coming to the table to do that.
BELLANTONIAnd just to…
GRIMMWell, let me also say that, again, CSX has to, themselves -- as they have been doing and will continue to -- has to address these individual concerns. But what I will note in terms of the broader context is CSX is in a very competitive battle for business with trucks. Trucks are very tough competitors. So it is the case that if too much is kind of loaded on CSX in terms of these costs or, again, in terms of the rerouting, circuitous, costly, inefficient routings, that is very much going to hamper their ability to compete with trucks.
GRIMMAnd it's very much going to have these then associated negative effects to our economy and negative effects to our environment.
GARBERLet me just address that quickly. Currently, in Virginia, 20 percent of CSX's rail transportation happens on shared tracks with other railroad companies. This isn't something that's so unusual. And also we seem to be coming back to the same point about either we do this project this way, that CSX, a billion dollar private corporation, wants to do it. Or we're left with having tons more trucks on the road, increasing pollution, etcetera. Those are not our options. We can do this project in a way that's safer for the community. That's safer locally, but also addresses national needs.
BELLANTONILet's hear from another person in that community. Melissa, you live on Virginia Avenue. Thanks for joining us. What are you concerns?
MELISSAThank you. And thank you to all the guests who are raising these issues. My concern really is I've been working with CSX, as a resident on Virginia Avenue, in discussions. And they've held a number of meetings. And you mentioned in their statement about "the value of the input of the community we serve." Unfortunately, in July, when the draft environmental impact statement came out, with CSX's plans clearly identified in 1,600 pages of that, we really felt like those meetings were just checked boxes for CSX.
MELISSAWe were not valued in our responses to them in our concerns. And let me just raise one point specifically. Children's environmental health is not addressed in 1,600 pages that outlines CSX's proposed construction plans for this neighborhood and for the city. The EPA was actually the first one to point that out. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency clearly stated children's environmental health does not appear to have been included at all. And so as a mother of two-year-olds I actually have quite a lot at risk here living on Virginia Avenue.
MELISSABut, again, I want to address something that Paul, your caller, mentioned. You know, this really is about feeling like we were trying to have conversations with CSX, trying to really get to the place where it could be a win-win for everyone. We had mentioned temporary routing. We strongly urge them to really take a look and provide some details in there. Again, that did not happen. So we had to go to the route of really seeking out our representatives in D.C., (unintelligible) more on Mayor Gray to select a no-build, which would allow us to see alternatives that could work for the city and for our future.
BELLANTONIThank you, Melissa.
MELISSADCSafeRail.org is something we conspired together, actually, to put some information out there to that end.
BELLANTONIGo ahead and read that again. Sorry, I cut you off.
MELISSAIt's something we -- yeah.
BELLANTONIThanks, Melissa. Thanks for joining us. Appreciate it. And Andrew points out, of course, that the Day School and Garfield Park are right there in this area. We're going to bring in Monte Edwards, who is vice chair of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, joining us on the phone. Hi, Monte.
MR. MONTE EDWARDSHello. And I would like to bring an element in this conversation that has not been explored adequately, and that's commuter rail and passenger rail. We've been talking about the Virginia Avenue Tunnel. We need to recognize that the only rail crossing within 70 miles of D.C. is the Long Bridge that roughly parallels the 14th Street Bridge. Then the railroad tracks are in southwest and then they come into the Virginia Avenue Tunnel.
MR. MONTE EDWARDSBut branching off of those southwest tracks are the tracks that go in the First Street Tunnel and are the only access from the south to Union Station. That First Street Tunnel is used by Amtrak and by commuter rail to access the southwest tracks and then to access the Long Bridge. And the Long Bridge and the southwest tracks are owned by CSX. They determine the priorities. They are already rationing the amount of commuter trains that VRE can bring across those tracks.
MR. MONTE EDWARDSAnd if we enlarge this tunnel -- and we need to look at not just what the near-term impact is, but the live of the tunnel, the next 100 years. If they're going to double-track that tunnel and make it capable for double-stack containers, a conservative estimate is that they will quadruple the amount of freight coming through that tunnel, using the southwest tracks and using the Long Bridge. And if CSX determines the priorities, that means that we will not have the ability to grown commuter rail and not grow Amtrak, which is the plan for both the Southwest Ecodistrict plan and for the Union Station master plan.
EDWARDSAnd bear in mind that here in Washington, two-thirds of the cars on our streets in any workday are non-D.C. cars. They're commuters driving in. We need to provide commuters an alternative to get into our city, to relieve congestion, to relieve the parking problems. And it is the cars versus commuter trains that needs to be focused on in the same way that you've been talking about trucks versus freight trains.
EDWARDSAnd to move a commuter into the city by commuter train takes one-fifth the amount of energy as to move that commuter in by an automobile, even assuming a 1.55 passenger per commuter car with some ridesharing. And that kind of energy differential also translates into the amount of pollution that would be saved by being able to get people out of their cars and into trains. What this city needs is a comprehensive rail plan that looks at commuter, passenger and freight. And comes up with a plan so all three of them can grow.
EDWARDSBecause all three of them offer a far more environmentally-friendly and energy-friendly alternative than cars and trucks.
BELLANTONIBringing back in John Heffner, an attorney specializing in rail transportation law. You've brought up infrastructure several times and the fact that we don't have a national plan. What do you make about the growth of commuter rail and whether this will affect that? I mean, how do you find a balance?
HEFFNER…rail. But I have to remind people that CSX and Norfolk Southern and these other companies, they're in the freight business. They -- for better or worse -- in 1971 they shed providing intercity passenger service. And so as much as I want to see more passenger rail -- and I take passenger trains myself -- CSX's obligation is to its stockholders and to its customers, who are primarily in the business of moving freight. But it comes back to the fact this country doesn't have a national transportation policy, because if we did, there would be less emphasis on highway and trucks and air and more emphasis on rail. And that's why it's just sort of going around in a circle, so to speak.
HEFFNERSo I'm sympathetic to CSX in that they're obligation is to make more robust freight network. But it's the job of government to spend significant dollars on a robust passenger rail network. Regarding capacity and alternate routes, one of the problems is while CSX has capacity constraints on the A line coming up from the south, and they also have capacity constraints on some of the alternatives.
BELLANTONISo one thing we were discussing during the break just briefly was the fact that this is, of course, located right next to National's Stadium -- by the way, undefeated in the preseason, I should point out. But how much is there a concern, David Garber, about how this will affect the games and the traffic and all those issues? Not to mention safety. And quickly, because we're coming up on the end.
GARBERYeah. Well, you know one of the main concerns the community had, just in general from this, from the point where CSX and the federal agencies released the draft environmental impact statement, was the fact that there seemed to be a lot of holes in the document. One of those holes is that the environmental impact statement doesn't even address the fact that there are baseball games happening in this neighborhood. And with baseball games, significantly increased pedestrian, bicycle and car traffic coming in and out of the neighborhood.
GARBERThe fact that they're not even addressing something that's taking place for a third of the year is pretty significant in my mind. They also, in their traffic plans, don't even acknowledge that there is construction on certain blocks surrounding the project.
BELLANTONIYeah. It's very interesting. Andrew Lightman, any closing thoughts, as we say goodbye?
LIGHTMANI think that when we look at this we need to have a serious discussion as a city about what is important. And from a city perspective -- and that's really what our civic government should be concerned about -- we need to move people in and out of D.C. in an effective manner. And we need to ensure that we protect the investments that we've made in the riverfront neighborhoods.
BELLANTONIThank you everybody for this really engaging discussion on the Virginia Avenue Tunnel. All of our callers really appreciate it. John Heffner, an attorney specializing in rail transportation law. Curtis Grimm of the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. And Monte Edward, the vice chair of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City.
BELLANTONIAnd of course, David Garber, ANC commissioner in Ward 6, and Andrew Lightman, managing editor of The Hill Rag here in studio with me. I'm Christina Bellantoni, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Stick around with us. In the next hour we've got a lot of interesting discussion coming up about the snow. Thanks.
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