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Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton

Representing the District of Columbia

Places in Washington DC

Norton Asks U.S. DOT Secretary for Quick Decision on Virginia Avenue Tunnel EIS

Mar 31, 2014
Press Release

WASHINGTON, DC – Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) today wrote a letter to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) requesting that the Virginia Avenue Tunnel project’s final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) be completed as soon as possible so that her constituents get answers as to whether or how the proposed project will proceed.

Norton, in her letter, wrote, “Because my constituents became and continued to be frustrated by this process, I held two public meetings on November 23, 2013, and January 25, 2014.  At both of these meetings, my constituents asked very good questions expecting to get answers.  Yet, as required by the process, they were only given information specific to the project that had been shared in the last meeting from the Draft EIS of July 31, 2013.  I was particularly upset to be told that the process prevents other government agencies from speaking publicly about the proposal…I ask that you help ensure the prompt release of the Final EIS for the Virginia Avenue Tunnel project so that the surrounding community is aware of the preferred alternative, any impacts this project may have on them, and any mitigation and benefits to the surrounding community.”

The full text of Norton’s letter follows.

Dear Secretary Foxx:

         I greatly appreciate your leadership on the critical issue of our nation’s transportation infrastructure.  As the ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, I look forward to continue working with you, the Administration, and my colleagues in Congress to bring our country’s infrastructure back from the brink of failure.  However, I am writing to express my concern with how long it is taking for my constituents to get answers about how a proposed CSX project here in the District of Columbia will impact them.

        Just blocks from the U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters and Capitol Hill, CSX is looking to spend around $200 million to reconstruct a rail tunnel that is more than 110 years old.  CSX began working with the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), as well as numerous other agencies, on the Virginia Avenue Tunnel project in 2006.  In 2006, the CSX rail corridor from the District to Miami, Florida – which included this tunnel project – was a finalist in FHWA’s “Corridors of the Future” grant, although not eventually selected.  At that time, the area around the proposed tunnel project was mostly industrial and had not yet begun the redevelopment that quickly took hold in 2009. 

        In 2008 and the following years before the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process started for the tunnel here, the rail company held over 100 meetings as it awaited a decision about federal support and what type of environmental review was required.  In 2009, Virginia agreed to put $24 million into both the NEPA process and tunnel reconstruction, but the NEPA process was still undecided.  Meanwhile, affected communities wanted to know answers to how the tunnel project might impact them if it moved forward.

        While an interagency meeting to begin the NEPA process was finally convened in October 2010, it was not until CSX announced that it would fully cover the remaining costs of the tunnel alone that public NEPA meetings were scheduled and the requirement of a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was established – almost a year later.  Still, it seems these agencies have failed to prioritize this project and to advance it in a timely manner.  It took almost three years to put out a Draft EIS. 

        The NEPA process has limited the ability for the community around the tunnel to have public meetings where they can ask relevant questions and get answers on the tunnel project since NEPA started in late 2010.  The NEPA process has allowed only five public meetings, from the first one on September 14, 2011, to today.  The project sponsors were not allowed to participate in public meetings to share any new information and were limited to only discussing and answering questions based on information released at the prior public meetings.  Because my constituents became and continued to be frustrated by this process, I held two public meetings on November 23, 2013, and January 25, 2014.  At both of these meetings, my constituents asked very good questions expecting to get answers.  Yet, as required by the process, they were only given information specific to the project that had been shared in the last meeting from the Draft EIS of July 31, 2013.  I was particularly upset to be told that the process prevents other government agencies from speaking publicly about the proposal.

        Other government officials have also attempted to gain additional insight into the project.  District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray held a public meeting January 16, 2014.  I am aware that U.S. Senators and Congressmen from Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland have also reached out to FHWA to express that this process be prioritized and completed.  In 2013, Virginia Senators Kaine and Warner asked FHWA for a status report.  They were told by FHWA that the project would have a Record of Decision (ROD) by December 2013.  That did not happen.  They followed up and were told the ROD would be completed by February, but that month also saw no action.  It is now more than eight months since the release of the Draft EIS and still there has been no release of the Final EIS.

        What makes this more difficult to understand is that CSX completed a similar project in Pittsburgh in 2013, a 130-year-old tunnel running through Pittsburgh’s SouthSide Works, a former industrial site that had been renovated into a mixed-use residential and commercial development.  There, with both federal and state funding and the same NEPA process being led by FHWA, the entire process took less than a year. 

        I ask that you help ensure the prompt release of the Final EIS for the Virginia Avenue Tunnel project so that the surrounding community is aware of the preferred alternative, any impacts this project may have on them, and any mitigation and benefits to the surrounding community.   As of January 2014, the Capitol Riverfront is now the fastest growing area in the District.  It is currently at 33% build out and expects to be at 50% build out by 2018.  Further delay in the release of the Final EIS has a significant effect on current and future plans of every kind for their community.

        Thank you for your attention, and I ask for full and fair consideration consistent with applicable law, rules, and regulations. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any updates or questions.

Sincerely.

Eleanor Holmes Norton

Published: March 31, 2014