Barbara Lanphier’s house is at the epicenter of a construction disaster zone.
Workers have camped outside her two-story home on Oregon Avenue NW, where they are using a tunnel-boring machine to dig 50 feet below ground in a laborious and noisy endeavor to reach and replace one of Washington’s aging sewer lines.
“It feels like the world could end,” said Lanphier, a retired store owner who was lured to Oregon Avenue in the Chevy Chase area by the street’s country-road feel and the bordering Rock Creek Park.
“I built this house in 2012 thinking I was going to be at the edge of paradise,” she said. “I thought, ‘Man, it is going to be total peace.’ So, imagine my surprise.”
Utility crews were already installing traffic-alert boards on neighborhood streets in January, when residents of the affluent Northwest Washington community learned at a meeting that D.C. Water would be replacing about 4,500 feet of 100-year-old sewer pipe that runs through the neighborhood — and that the work, just off their front lawns, would last more than two years.
Soon thereafter, portions of Oregon Avenue, a popular cut-through for commuters from Maryland, began to shut down to traffic and are not expected to completely reopen for the duration of the project. Bingham Drive, another route used to get from the east side of Rock Creek Park to the west, closed in January from Oregon to Beach Drive — which is undergoing its own massive rebuilding project.
But it gets worse. The District Department of Transportation is about to begin a total reconstruction of the 1.7-mile segment of Oregon Avenue between Miliary Road and Western Avenue. That work, now pushed back to the beginning of next year, will add more than two years of closures, detours and construction traffic to the corridor.
“It is a major, major disruption to the community,” said Randy Speck, a neighborhood advisory commissioner who lives a few blocks from Oregon Avenue. “What the community is facing is continuous construction now to 2020.”
Heavy machinery, including a large crane used for handling pipe, blocks views of the park. The noise of front-end loaders scooping rock and earth from a massive hole and dropping it into metal dumpsters all day disrupts the peace of elderly residents nearby. Orange cones, construction fencing and detour signs repel drivers working for ride-hailing and delivery services. Buses are detoured and delayed. Ambulances get lost trying to reach a military senior community inside the work perimeter.
Booming construction has taken its toll on residents all across the city where aging infrastructure is in grave need of upgrades and projects are rising as a sign of the city’s continued growth. District officials say that residents adapt and that commuters adjust their routes. But for those living in the work zones, the activity is more than just a nuisance — it is a change in lifestyle.
The worst, residents say, are the multiyear projects, such as the work on the Virginia Avenue Tunnel in Southeast Washington, where people have been living next to a trench for two years as crews work on a critical piece of the city’s rail infrastructure. In Northeast Washington, the city has closed a lane along 17th Street, north of Benning Road, for road improvements not expected to be completed for 18 months. On Capitol Hill, utility work lasting years was followed by road improvements that will disrupt traffic for another year.
“No road closures are easy, and we try to minimize the impact on motorists and residents if we ever do close a road,” D.C. Water spokesman Vincent Morris said of the Chevy Chase project. “But repairing and improving the water and sewer lines that serve District residents, along with our customers in Maryland and Virginia, is critically important, and we hope people know that we aim for minimal impact on their routines.”
The large pipe that carries waste all the way through the city and down to the Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant in Southwest Washington is 50 feet underground, and getting to it and working on it is a slow and dangerous process that requires months of work, Morris said.
Because the road has two narrow lanes, there isn’t room for the work to be done on one side of the roadway. And D.C. Water isn’t allowed to work in Rock Creek Park, which, as National Park Service property, is protected land.
Residents say they understand that the wastewater treatment project is, as D.C. Water puts it, essential to civilization. What they do not understand, they say, is why so little notice was given.
“I can’t even remember how much notice I got. Seems like none. Seems like one day there was 35 trucks in front of my house,” Lanphier said.
Residents in Chevy Chase and in nearby Barnaby Woods and Hawthorne had been preparing for years for the reconstruction of Oregon Avenue, meeting regularly with the DDOT, which is leading a project to add sidewalks and lighting and to upgrade the storm-water system. But they were not counting on an additional two years of sewer-pipe replacement.
D.C. Water said that it communicated with residents starting “way back in 2016” and that project officials held meetings with the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. But the first ANC meeting where the $17 million project was discussed was Jan. 9, 2017, according to commission minutes, ANC members and a D.C. Water timeline. Letters were sent to residents in December, and information disseminated on list serves, via email and through D.C. Council offices reached the community just as crews began to settle into the neighborhoods.
The DDOT, meanwhile, was aware of the project since mid-2015, and it issued the work permit to D.C. Water in January 2016. Still, city officials say, it was not their role to alert residents about the project or the coming road closures. They say D.C. Water was responsible for handling communications, traffic signage and mitigation.
For most of last year, the DDOT was silent even on its own plan to improve the aesthetics of the road, work that was expected to begin this spring. The agency recently began telling neighbors that the reconstruction will probably start in April 2018 and will be executed in three phases with the stretch of road now under D.C. Water control to be completed last.
DDOT project manager Paul Hoffman said the city has been coordinating with D.C. Water to determine the best, and least painful way, to get the work done. But that could be difficult with other projects underway nearby.
The utility has another project in the neighborhood that will cross the work being done on Oregon Avenue.
Construction is set to begin soon on two senior housing buildings just half a mile away on Military Road, and the popular St. John’s College High School, at Oregon Avenue and Military Road, plans to expand its athletic facilities. Then there’s the ongoing reconstruction of the 6.5-mile Beach Drive, which parallels Oregon Avenue.
For thousands of commuters in upper Northwest, including about 7,300 who use Oregon Avenue each day, there aren’t many alternatives. Other Northwest commuter corridors such as Connecticut Avenue and 16th Street are already choked with traffic.
“I don’t actually understand the work,” said Ann Garlow, who commutes through the area. “Seems a really long time for a really short road.”
At rush hour, the Oregon Avenue closure has traffic on Western Avenue crawling from Daniel Road, on the edge of Rock Creek Park, to Chevy Chase Circle, Garlow said. But her fear is that it will become much worse when the portion of Beach Drive that parallels Oregon Avenue closes for reconstruction next year.
A stretch of Beach Drive near the National Zoo closed last September, creating significant backups on the region’s road network. DDOT officials say they expect that commuters will avoid the area when that happens, but they say Connecticut and Georgia avenues and adjacent arteries may see an uptick in rush-hour traffic.
“From a strategic perspective, we need to get this work moving,” DDOT Director Leif A. Dormsjo told a D.C. Council oversight committee last month. It also makes sense, he said, to allow the utility work to be done before the $18 million road project. “What we are doing now is trying to figure out whether or not we can advance our work in such a way that we don’t doubly impact the community.”
Back on Oregon Avenue, about 300 seniors at the Knollwood Military Retirement Community are living on the front lines. Their E6 Metrobus is going around the work zone, skipping some stops. Its frequency is so unreliable that employees of the retirement community say they are often late to work. Trash pickup, food and medical deliveries are late. The road detours are so confusing that in the past month, volunteer chaplains aiming to conduct Sunday services have arrived more than 45 minutes late. The work kicks up so much dust that neighbors can’t open their windows.
“Our visitors are having a terrible time finding us. The ambulances are having a hard time finding their way here, and that’s a problem for us,” said Thelma Mrazek, 86, who has lived in the community for 15 years. “It’s very hard on the employees and the residents. And we can’t believe the work will take that long.”