For three years, residents of Virginia Avenue SE have lived the pain of a 24/7 construction zone. An open trench. Fencing stretching a dozen city blocks. Heavy machinery — drilling, digging, dumping and pouring concrete. All in view of their front yards.
The work is winding down, with only five months left on the $250 million reconstruction of the old CSX railroad tunnel beneath their street of colorful rowhouses and brick apartment buildings. But residents fear their agony over one of the District’s most contentious construction projects won’t end there. Beyond the annoyance of the dirt and noise, many are reporting increased vibrations in their homes every time a train passes through the new structure.
“We will be relieved to get our road back,” said Andrew Shields, one of the front-row residents on the 300 block of Virginia Avenue. “But they leave and there is no more monitoring and no mechanism in place to keep those [train] speeds low. Then we are going to see even more vibration than we are already seeing.”
A city review of CSX Transportation’s vibration monitoring confirmed the residents’ concerns that train operations may be causing more powerful vibrations than projected by pre-construction estimates. CSX says its monitoring shows vibration levels are compliant with what was laid out in a federal report as acceptable.
“CSX installed sophisticated monitoring devices along the Project limits to ensure that the construction activities performed comply with the permitted vibration levels,” the company said in a statement, saying it has continually notified residents and businesses about high noise- and vibration-producing activities.
“CSX has used specialized equipment and construction techniques designed to limit noise and vibration,” the company said. “Vibration levels today . . . are consistent with vibration levels in the area prior to the start of the project.”
CSX demolished the century-old tunnel beneath Virginia Avenue SE, from Second to 11th streets, and built twin tunnels in its place. The first of the two tunnels — which were built closer to the residences — opened for business more than a year ago and for the first time allow the passage of double-stacked rail cars through the city, increasing the capacity for freight transportation in the corridor. Crews completed the second tunnel this spring, pouring more than 84,000 cubic yards of concrete as they finished the tunnel’s roof and have shifted their efforts to track work with a goal to have it open this summer.
CSX says the completed project will end a choke point created when trains passing through the tunnel were forced to merge from two tracks to one, slowing the movement of freight up and down the East Coast.
“As planned and as it was conceived, it will allow the trains to continue to keep moving, which helps with the fluidity of the trains,” said Chuck Gullakson, assistant chief engineer and project manager.
The project is on schedule for completion in October, he said.
That timeline delights residents eager to see the fences and heavy machinery go and their sidewalks, courtyard and curbside parking return. Yet it also worries those who fear train speeds, now 25 mph inside the tunnel, will increase when the work is complete.
A main freight line requires minimum speeds of 40 mph, federal documents related to the project say. The new tunnels were constructed to accommodate trains traveling up to 40 mph, and the speed permitted immediately outside the tunnel is 40 mph, nearly twice the speed allowed inside. Residents say that speed combined with heavier trains passing through in a tunnel closer to their homes is producing more intense rattling.
“I’ve repeatedly watched water dance in a bottle as trains pass by, my television remote bounce about on my bookshelf,” said Maureen Cohen Harrington, another resident just steps from the tunnel.
The District Department of Transportation launched an investigation last year into claims that trains passing through the new tunnel — and not construction activity — are the source of the more powerful vibrations. The report, finalized in January, called into question CSX’s promise that vibrations would be a nonissue during the project, and that it would be construction activity not trains contributing to any noticeable rumbling.
The Federal Highway Administration's Record of Decision, which gave the project a green light in fall 2014, assured community members that although the centerline of the new tunnel was 25 feet south of the old one — closer to their homes — design features would prevent proximity effects from train-related vibration to nearby buildings.
“The vibration analysis indicates there will not be building damage or human annoyance as a result of trains passing through the new tunnel,” the FHWA concluded. In a May 2017 letter to CSX, the federal agency asked the railroad to reduce the speed of trains traveling through the tunnel during the construction until the source of vibration is determined.
The city’s review found “it is probable that train operations have caused vibrations that exceed perceptible vibration levels” of 65 VdB (vibration velocity level), citing data reported by CSX that shows vibration above that limit when trains were operating in the tunnel. The average values for vibration levels reported by CSX don’t exceed 80 VdB, the limits for human annoyance as identified in the project’s federal environmental impact statement.
The report points out, however, that the CSX monitoring analysis was set for the purpose of construction vibration only, not train operations, which makes it unclear how much vibration has increased since trains began operating in the tunnel.
“Additional analysis of key data” is needed to adequately address ongoing concerns, the report said.
The increased vibration reported by residents baffles city and CSX officials, who cite the modifications made to the track in the tunnel to reduce vibrations. Those include the installation of friction modifiers on the track surface and additional ballast material beneath the rails, according to CSX.
CSX installed a monitoring system in April 2015 to find pre-construction vibration levels, and the company is notified in real time when vibration levels exceed the set thresholds, according to DDOT, which gets biweekly reports from the company. Since construction began, the company has reported 16 instances when vibration criteria were exceeded, but none since the new tunnel opened.
However, the city’s review cites reports from residents about increased vibration since the tunnel opened, particularly noticeable in upper floors of their homes. One resident logged more than 300 instances between May and September 2017 when he felt vibration from a train, according to the DDOT report. CSX has declined to confirm whether trains were operating in the tunnel at those times, the report says.
“The report confirms what residents have been saying for over a year now,” Meredith Fascett, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member who represents the area, wrote in a Facebook post last month. “We can feel vibrations from rail operations and CSX should take steps to fix this.”
Fascett and D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) have asked DDOT to come up with a plan to enforce the report’s recommendations and mitigate its impact on residents. Sam Zimbabwe, chief project delivery officer for DDOT, said the city did the vibration review to respond to concerns of residents and elected officials. But DDOT has no enforcement authority over train speed or railroad operations, he said, which makes even enforcing its own recommendations unlikely. The agency was involved in the project’s approval process only because of its jurisdiction over the roadway.
Zimbabwe said the city is looking forward to the end of construction and the reopening of Virginia Avenue. Crews this summer will work on repaving the roadway, building new sidewalks and planting trees to replace those removed during construction. The project also includes some park enhancements and the addition of a dedicated dog park.
“Everybody will enjoy having the construction done,” Zimbabwe said.
The 3,800-foot-long tunnel is about a mile away from the U.S. Capitol, in an area of Southeast Washington that has grown in the past decade with new residential and commercial development. A long-delayed Whole Foods Market is under construction at thewestern end of the CSX site, between New Jersey Avenue and Second Street SE.
Reconstruction of the tunnel was touted as a critical project for the railroad. The tunnel’s single-track configuration has been a major bottleneck in the region’s rail network, and CSX says its modernization not only helps maintain the integrity of what is considered an important access point in the East Coast rail system, but also will allow it to handle expected increases in freight transportation.
About 18 trains run through the tunnel daily, but that number could increase to 42 by 2040, the company said.