Rail-tun­nel work pushes on amid angst of D.C. neigh­bors

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY LUZ LAZO

The first of two new CSX tun­nels in South­east Wash­ing­ton is open for busi­ness, for the first time al­low­ing dou­ble-stacked rail cars to roll through the city. Re­con­struc­tion of the 3,800-foot tun­nel that runs be­neath Vir­ginia Av­enue SE, from Sec­ond to 11th streets, is crit­i­cal to ex­pand­ing ca­pac­ity for freight trans­porta­tion in the grow­ing In­ter­state 95 cor­ri­dor and ad­dress­ing a long­time bot­tle­neck that has slowed rail traf­fic along the East Coast.

But mid­way to com­ple­tion of the $250 mil­lion project, neigh­bors in the 11-block con­struc­tion zone see no ben­e­fits. Vir­ginia Av­enue is closed to mo­tor traf­fic and is fenced-in for bull­doz­ers and other heavy ma­chin­ery; crews have re­moved 20,900 truck­loads of soil and poured 50,000 cu­bic yards of con­crete.

Res­i­dents at the Arthur Cap­per Se­nior Cen­ter say they have more dif­fi­culty get­ting around with the road clo­sures, makeshift pedes­trian bridges and longer walks to the bus stop.

“The noise and the dust and the smell — some­times it gets so bad in my apart­ment that I have to leave,” said Delores Rhodes, 71, who lives in the se­nior apart­ment build­ing fronting the project at Fifth Street SE.

CSX says it mon­i­tors air qual­ity, noise and vi­bra­tion. And through­out the project, the com­pany has taken mea­sures to limit the im­pact of con­struc­tion, meet­ing reg­u­larly with neigh­bors and also fi­nan­cially com­pen­sat­ing those with homes clos­est to the project.

The en­vi­ron­men­tal mon­i­tors placed at var­i­ous lo­ca­tions in­di­cate that the level of

vi­bra­tion, air pol­lu­tion and noise are within the range pre­dicted be­fore con­struc­tion and also are within fed­eral lim­its, ac­cord­ing to CSX re­ports.

Most re­cently, res­i­dents’ com­plaints have cen­tered on shak­ing they ex­pe­ri­ence through­out the day. Tremors that feel like mini earth­quakes cause wa­ter to rip­ple in glasses, they say. And res­i­dents say no, the rum­bling is not be­ing caused by trucks trav­el­ing on the nearby South­east Free­way/I-695, as some of­fi­cials con­tend.

Res­i­dents say the vi­bra­tions are com­ing from the new tun­nel — which was built closer to their homes — and is caused by the trains, which they con­tend are trav­el­ing faster than they did be­fore.

“I as­sume it is be­cause of the trains,” res­i­dent Jesse Skid­more said at a re­cent meet­ing with CSX. “I as­sume we are not just hav­ing earth­quakes that are hap­pen­ing a few times a day.”

CSX says the 15 to 20 trains that pass through the tun­nel daily travel at a max­i­mum of 25 mph, the same speed limit that was im­posed in the old tun­nel.

The fed­eral view

Fed­eral doc­u­ments from 2009 to 2014 in­di­cate that trains pass­ing through the old tun­nel abided by a speed limit of 15 mph. But CSX spokesman Rob Doolit­tle said that track re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion in the old tun­nel al­lowed the rail­road to run trains at 25 mph and that that was the speed limit in place when the old tun­nel was taken out of ser­vice.

Those speed re­stric­tions con­trib­uted to the bot­tle­neck af­fect­ing freight and pas­sen­ger rail in the area, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments in which fed­eral of­fi­cials made their case sup­port­ing the tun­nel project. The speed re­stric­tions were im­posed to main­tain safe train pas­sage over ar­eas “of sub­stan­dard track beds,” although speeds of up to 40 mph are al­lowed im­me­di­ately out­side the tun­nel.

The old tun­nel also showed signs of dis­tress such as crack­ing in the ma­sonry, wa­ter in­fil­tra­tion and de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in ma­sonry joints, the doc­u­ments said. The main con­cern was a poor drainage sys­tem that led to in­creased mois­ture in the tun­nel and weak­en­ing and de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of the ground be­neath the bal­last.

So, of­fi­cials de­cided to re­place the Vir­ginia Av­enue Tun­nel with two per­ma­nent tun­nels built con­sec­u­tively. Each of the new tun­nels will have a sin­gle rail­road track with enough over­head space to al­low the dou­ble-stacked freight cars.

The com­pleted tun­nel and the one un­der con­struc­tion have im­proved drainage, con­crete floors and are wa­ter­proof — and they can sup­port trains trav­el­ing at 40 mph.

The project will elim­i­nate a one-track con­fig­u­ra­tion that has slowed the move­ment of freight up and down the East Coast for decades as trains are forced to fun­nel from two tracks to one when they reach the Vir­ginia Av­enue Tun­nel.

“When the sec­ond new Vir­ginia Av­enue Tun­nel is com­pleted, that bot­tle­neck will be elim­i­nated, and the flu­id­ity of traf­fic through­out the re­gion will be im­proved,” Doolit­tle said.

The project also is the last of 61 in a rail­road plan known as the Na­tional Gate­way Ini­tia­tive, which is aimed at cre­at­ing more ef­fi­cient path­ways for rail freight be­tween Mid-At­lantic sea­ports and the Mid­west.

Res­i­dents, how­ever, just hope the new tun­nels keep them safer. Many of them fought the project over con­cerns about the trans­porta­tion of haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als through the Dis­trict.

The de­rail­ment in May of a CSX train in North­east Wash­ing­ton was not re­as­sur­ing, said He­len Dou­glas, a re­tired city govern­ment worker who lives at the se­nior cen­ter. That de­rail­ment spilled chem­i­cals along a busy cor­ri­dor. Four­teen of the train’s 175 cars left the track, with one car leak­ing more than 700 gal­lons of sodium hy­drox­ide — a caus­tic chem­i­cal used in clean­ing agents. An­other tank car leaked cal­cium chlo­ride, de­scribed as “non­haz­ardous,” and a third leaked ethanol. No in­juries were re­ported.

CSX says the new tun­nels will make rail travel safer.

At an open house this month, of­fi­cials tried to re­as­sure res­i­dents and an­swer their ques­tions.

What’s caus­ing vi­bra­tions?

Chuck Gul­lak­son, the chief project en­gi­neer, who lives in a town­house on Vir­ginia Av­enue, told res­i­dents he has not ex­pe­ri­enced the vi­bra­tions they’ve com­plained about, but he promised to look into the is­sue. When he sug­gested that the vi­bra­tions could be caused by I-695 traf­fic, a res­i­dent said, “It’s def­i­nitely not truck traf­fic. The truck traf­fic has been there since the be­gin­ning.”

A few res­i­dents said that cracks had ap­peared in their floors and that they were wor­ried about the dam­age ex­tend­ing to their homes’ foun­da­tions. Oth­ers asked whether the trains us­ing the new tun­nel are heav­ier than be­fore or are haul­ing heav­ier cargo, which could be caus­ing the vi­bra­tions and dam­age.

Gul­lak­son said the lo­co­mo­tives pulling the trains are heav­ier than the dou­ble-stacked cars and that the new tun­nel has fea­tures to ab­sorb vi­bra­tions. CSX said in­spec­tors will look into the is­sue and find a so­lu­tion if they de­ter­mine that the tun­nel is the cause of the vi­bra­tions.

The Dis­trict De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion also is work­ing with CSX in mon­i­tor­ing noise and traf­fic around the project. DDOT of­fi­cials said they ob­serve the work daily to en­sure that traf­fic con­trols are in place and that traf­fic flows smoothly through con­struc­tion ar­eas.

CSX re­minded res­i­dents that when the project has been com­pleted, they will have an im­proved Vir­ginia Av­enue. There will be bike paths, a new com­mu­nity dog park, wider side­walks and bet­ter light­ing, traf­fic sig­nals and cross­walks.

But with about 20 more months of con­struc­tion left, there is also still a lot of pain left to en­dure, said Mau­reen Co­hen Har­ring­ton, who owns a town­house near the tun­nel. Con­struc­tion is about to en­ter its most dis­rup­tive phase, she said, which in­volves de­mol­ish­ing the orig­i­nal tun­nel.

Neigh­bors are try­ing to adapt, but they do not plan to stay quiet, hav­ing put up with too much for too long, she said.

“Uber can’t find us. Even Waze can’t keep up with it,” Co­hen Har­ring­ton said, re­fer­ring to the ride-hail­ing ser­vice and a nav­i­ga­tion app for smart­phones. “We have lost all our beau­ti­ful trees. We had a beau­ti­ful view and a beau­ti­ful court­yard. Now we have what feels like a war zone.”


TOP: A dou­ble-stacked freight train uses the newly opened CSX tun­nel that runs be­neath Vir­ginia Av­enue in South­east Wash­ing­ton. ABOVE: The com­pleted tun­nel, right, and the one un­der con­struc­tion have im­proved drainage, con­crete floors and are wa­ter­proof. Ac­com­mo­dat­ing dou­ble-stacked rail cars will help mit­i­gate an East Coast bot­tle­neck.


Look­ing east over Fourth Street SE in the Dis­trict on Wed­nes­day, work on the Vir­ginia Av­enue rail project can be seen run­ning along­side the South­east Free­way. Lo­cal res­i­dents have com­plained that with a new tun­nel now in use, their homes are af­fected by vi­bra­tions.

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