The interests of railroads and residents collided Saturday in packed public meeting blocks from the U.S. Capitol about the proposed reconstruction of a century old rail tunnel, what kinds of cargo might move through it and what impact that might have on a developing neighborhood.
CSX Transportation, which operates freight trains through a 4,000-foot tunnel under Washington's Capitol Hill neighborhood, defended its proposal to expand the tunnel to accommodate more freight traffic.
Neighborhood groups pushed back, demanding to know if CSX ultimately planned to ship larger quantities of hazardous materials through the tunnel, particularly crude oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota.
That cargo has figured into multiple serious rail accidents recently in Quebec, Alabama and North Dakota. A derailment in July of a runaway crude oil train killed 47 people in Quebec.
CSX officials maintained that their purpose for updating the tunnel was an anticipated increase in containerized cargo traffic bound for East Coast ports after an expansion of the Panama Canal is finished next year.
The Virginia Avenue Tunnel, which dates to 1904, is too narrow for two tracks, and too low for double-stacked containers, an efficient method of shipping cargo that's transferred from oceangoing vessels to trucks and trains at seaports.
"At some point, this tunnel needs to be replaced," said Stephen Flippin, director of federal affairs for CSX and a former congressional aide.
But residents, who were already concerned about the disruption a three-to-six-year project to update the tunnel would mean for them, raised the prospect that large quantities of flammable crude oil could be transported within feet of their homes in an open trench.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, a nonvoting representative in Congress for the District of Columbia, called the notion of moving Bakken crude through the city "suicidal."
CSX, based in Jacksonville, Fla., does not directly serve the region where Bakken oil is produced but handles the shipments from Chicago to East Coast destinations.
The railroad already brings entire trains of crude oil to terminals near Albany, N.Y., Philadelphia and Yorktown, Va. At those locations, the crude is transferred to refineries, pipelines or tanker ships bound for other refineries.
CEO Michael Ward recently said that the company expects to increase its shipments of crude oil by 50 percent this year. Ward also said that new safety regulations would increase costs, but not slow the overall growth of the business.
CSX officials said Saturday that crude oil did not move through Washington in unit trains, or entire trains with cars carrying the same cargo, and that the railroad had no immediate plans to use the route through the Nation's Capital for such traffic.
But the dozens of residents who attended the meeting weren't satisfied with the answers they received, and directed their criticisms not only at CSX, but also at the local and federal agencies supervising the project.
The tunnel enlargement is subject to approval from a variety of agencies, from the District's Department of Transportation to the Federal Highway Administration to the Environmental Protection Agency.
District and federal highway officials participated in the meeting, but the EPA did not attend.