Residents express safety concerns over First Street Tunnel project

June 27

City officials broke ground Friday on the First Street tunnel, even as local residents protested some particulars of the project, which is intended to mitigate flooding and sewage overflows in the Bloomingdale and LeDroit Park neighborhoods.

The tunnel was conceived after decades of flooding and sewage runoff in these neighborhoods, with a particularly damaging season in 2012 that prompted Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) to appoint a task force to solve the problem.

The tunnel — a 20-foot-wide cistern that will hold 8 million gallons of wastewater and storm water during heavy rainfalls — is scheduled for completion in 2016.

But it is not without its critics. Some community members have expressed concern over living conditions during construction — especially traffic disruptions and the impact of vibrations on their homes’ structural integrity.

Patricia Hampton, 75, a retired government employee living on First Street NW, explained how most of the houses along the street are centuries-old and could sustain damage from the operation of heavy machinery nearby.

“For many of us, these houses represent our biggest investment, our lifetime investment. They represent our retirement plans, our safety net, so to speak, and they’re at risk,” Hampton said.

Tom Lindberg, a spokesman for the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, said at a recent monthly community forum that efforts have been made to mitigate concerns, including conducting pre-construction surveys of these homes and promising to monitor noise and vibration levels throughout construction.

Angela Ray, also a First Street resident, said the concern with vibrations and noise is based on preliminary demolition work already underway by Pepco and Washington Gas.

Lindberg said some of the work that the utility companies are undertaking has nothing to do with the tunnel project.

That doesn’t matter to Ray, who said, “For the residents, it’s a continued demolition.”

In addition, the District Department of Transportation has come under fire regarding concerns over traffic plans during construction.

As detailed in a May 9 letter to affected residents, the original traffic plan that DDOT approved for the roughly 20-month project called for maintaining two-way traffic running along First Street NW throughout construction — except for an eight-month period when there would be only one-way traffic northbound. The plan also called for the removal of tree boxes along the affected route.

Some residents wanted to preserve the tree boxes and avoid the possibility of two-way traffic.

With community feedback, the traffic plan was revised to call for one-way traffic through most of the project’s duration and to accommodate other, smaller complaints of residents.

“DDOT needs to step up and make sure that they close the streets so that we don’t have two-way traffic going past the 100-foot trenches right outside our doorsteps,” Ray said.

Despite residents’ pushback on construction and traffic plans, residents said they understand the project’s public safety value.

Teri Janine Quinn, vice chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5E and president of the Bloomingdale Civic Association, said that, although community relations with D.C. Water are not perfect, they are fairly good.

“It doesn’t mean that they always come in with answers that we like,” Quinn said. “What it does mean is that when they perceive that the neighborhood is 100 percent against something or they discover that there are issues that they had not yet contemplated, they’ve shown a real willingness to go back and review that plan and in many instances, edited them substantially.”

John Lisle, a spokesman for D.C. Water, said the $157 million cost of the project includes $6 million to $8 million for services to mitigate residents’ concerns, such as alternative parking spaces and free, 24-hour shuttle services to and from the parking locations.

“We’re hopeful that, going forward, the lines of communication will stay open and that these big-ticket outstanding issues will be resolved and not just pushed along to the side so that we can get the construction going and over with,” Quinn said.

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