Photo by HerrVebah on Flickr.

Replacing and expanding CSX’s Virginia Avenue tunnel in southeast Capitol Hill will be no easy task and is likely to cause more than a few headaches for local residents.  Last night, CSX and DDOT kicked off the formal public involvement process, asking attendees for comments, concerns and potential alternatives.

The project scope is virtually unchanged since CSX first unveiled its plans to widen and deepen the tunnel that runs under the eastbound lanes of Virginia Avenue, SE.

The biggest difference since initial talks began in late 2009 is that CSX has chosen not to wait for any additional public funding and will cover much of the additional cost with $160 million of its own capital.

Tonight’s event officially started the NEPA environmental evaluation process. The federal review process is being led by the Federal Highway Administration because of the project’s potential to impact traffic flow on and off of I-295.

Construction may require temporary closure of the 295 Eastbound on-ramp at 8th Street and Virginia Avenue. This would force drivers heading across the 11th Street Bridge to use the on-ramp at 11th and N Streets.

As part of the NEPA process, CSX and DDOT will hold several public meetings, and this first one was billed as a “scoping meeting.”  Here’s the presentation.

Left: NEPA process overview. Right: NEPA schedule.

While CSX provided plenty of nametagged people to talk to members of the public and address questions, the open format left more that a few people scratching their heads.  A number of attendees expressed their disappointment that CSX didn’t begin the meeting with some kind of general presentation about project basics, like tentative designs and schedule, need and potential impacts.

“I don’t even really know what’s happening,” said one nearby resident.  “Is this tunnel only one option? I’m not a shy person, so I have no problem asking questions of these people, but I could see how a lot of people can get intimidated.”

That may indeed have happened. The organizers boasted about 100 attendees signing in, but it appeared that only half of those were in any way engaged in asking questions of submitting comments, with many others quickly scanning past the placards before heading off into the night.

What’s more, the meeting had a decidedly superficial feel to it. The placards scattered about the room contained very little information beyond introductory NEPA facts, a very basic project scope, and a lot of pro-freight rail propaganda, including some nifty computer animations about the National Gateway project.

As David Garber, ANC Commissioner for the affected neighborhood, pointed out, the meeting was lacking in answers to residents’ most important questions: what happens during construction and what does the community get out at the end? “Virginia Avenue is not a great public space currently,” Garber said, “so there’s an opportunity here to change that.”

So while many residents were left wondering why they should be made to endure huge, several year long disruptions to their daily lives, there was no sign anywhere of CSX’s proposed community amenities.

CSX is clearly making significant efforts to reach out to the community. They’re going to need it to overcome an earlier snafu in which the railroad and its consultants used old satellite images for preliminary planning. The old photos left planners unaware that Virginia Avenue was no longer a strip of vacant parcels, but instead a burgeoning neighborhood of new row houses and a senior apartment building.

Still, this event did little to answer residents’ questions or quell their fears that the project would be a major disruption to their daily lives. While asking for comments, questions and alternatives is a laudable effort, it is difficult for the public to make reasonable suggestions if they no so little about the actual impacts they can expect.

If you live or work near Virginia Avenue or frequent the SE-SW freeway, DDOT and CSX want to hear your concerns. The NEPA process requires a 30-day comment period, leaving interested members of the public until October 14th to submit their comments.  Comments can be submitted via email to contact@virginiaavenuetunnel.com or via the project website.

Update: The boards from the meeting are now posted online.

Erik Weber has been living car-free in the District since 2009.  Hailing from the home of the nation’s first Urban Growth Boundary, Erik has been interested in transit since spending summers in Germany as a kid where he rode as many buses, trains and streetcars as he could find.  Views expressed here are Erik’s alone.

Born in DC, Moira grew up in Arlington and became an avid urbanist after studying and living in London. She is currently a fellow with Smart Growth America, working on the Governors’ Institute on Community Design program.