The CSX tracks that go underground at the tunnel near Garfield Park and H at 2nd streets SE under the Southeast-Southwest Freeway is the site where construction would start on the Virginia Avenue tunnel project. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The brick floor of the Virginia Avenue tunnel has worn away. Water saturation has undermined the ground beneath the track ballast. Its relatively small size makes it a tight squeeze for modern trains.

Despite some upgrades in recent decades, the tunnel in Southeast Washington through which 20 to 30 cargo trains travel each day has not kept up with modern rail technology and at 110 years old is showing its age.

“This is a tunnel that is near the end of its useful life,” said Steve Flippin, director of federal affairs for CSX, which owns the tunnel. “We are having to maintain it more and more and more often, which means it is getting closer to failure and that’s not anything that we want, and it’s nothing that the community wants. At some point this tunnel has to be replaced.”

The tunnel is a key piece in the railroad network of the Interstate 95 corridor, and officials say extensive upgrades are needed if it is to continue to support commerce along the East Coast. Use of the fragile tunnel is projected to increase as freight transportation grows, Flippin said.

CSX has proposed to restore the tunnel to two tracks, as it was before the 1930s, when railroad officials determined it was no longer safe to operate two tracks inside the tunnel because it could not accommodate the new, and wider, equipment going through it.

Cargo transportation officials say the one-track configuration creates a bottleneck in the rail system as trains funnel from two tracks to one, slowing the movement of freight up and down the coast.

“Freight trains end up having to sit there and wait for other trains to come through the tunnel,” Flippin said. CSX also wants to make the tunnel two feet taller to allow enough overhead space to run the double-stacked trains that are now standard in freight shipping across the country. Doing so would allow CSX to move more cargo using fewer trains.

Still, the main goal of the project is to rectify structural problems at the tunnel, which requires increasingly more frequent inspections and maintenance to keep rail operations safe. There are cracks in the 81 / 2-foot-thick masonry walls, problems with water infiltration and deteriorating brick. A draft environmental impact assessment of the project by the D.C. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration identifies the outdated tunnel’s drainage system as the problem of greatest concern.

“The poor drainage system has led to increased moisture in the tunnel and an overall weakening and deterioration of the ground underneath the ballast,” the assessment says. The tunnel’s floor is soil while today’s standard engineering would recommend a concrete foundation.

The tunnel “reflects the engineering practices and construction methods that are more than 100 years old and are effectively obsolete,” according to the assessment.

The plan to rebuild the tunnel, however, has been a hard sell to the community.

Over the past decade, development has boomed in the community around the tunnel that runs under Virginia Avenue SE, from Second to 11th streets. The area is no longer known mostly for the shipbuilding industry at the Washington Navy Yard. It is now a growing residential community of pricey townhouses and new commercial development. Residents say the tunnel and railroad no longer fit the character of the neighborhood, just a mile from the U.S. Capitol.

“That thing rumbling past my window 24 hours a day is ridiculous,” Andrea Jackson, a resident at the Capper Senior Building, told railroad officials recently. Her apartment building is home to low-income seniors. “Don’t build it, reroute it. That is what you can do to make sure that I and the rest of the residents and neighbors here have peace of mind.”

The Federal Highway Administration and DDOT are reviewing the proposal and could release a final environmental assessment early this year. After the assessment has been completed, the Federal Highway Administration is expected to issue a decision on the project. If the project wins federal approval, CSX would then apply to DDOT for construction permits. At that point, the city would decide whether the project could proceed.

Vital to the economy

The tunnel has experienced significant structural failures over the years. In 1985, when the tunnel was owned by Conrail, a 300-foot section collapsed. Workers labored 24 hours a day for several weeks to make emergency repairs. In 2009, rainwater leaking into the tunnel from the Southeast Freeway and Virginia Avenue weakened the earthen floor. A rail split, causing the derailment of two locomotives and 13 loaded gondola cars transporting scrap metal.

“We need to replace that floor,” Flippin said. “They do more frequent maintenance and repairs now to make sure that the floor underneath is solid enough to continue operation, but it goes back to the fact that the floor needs to be replaced.”

Railroad experts say rehabilitation of infrastructure such as the Virginia Avenue tunnel for longer-term use is a good investment for the U.S. economy and for safety and mobility, especially with Washington’s traffic congestion.

“The U.S. is in an infrastructure crisis,” said Curtis Grimm, a professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland and an expert in the railroad industry. “The benefits of this infrastructure investment are to all of us.”

Not rebuilding the tunnel, he said, would hurt the economy because rail shipments would slow, which he says could result in more traffic congestion and environmental impacts because of an increase in truck traffic to make up the shortfall in rail capacity.

“If we are not able to upgrade the infrastructure, we are risking our ability to be competitive with businesses in other countries,” he said.

The Panama Canal expansion scheduled for completion by 2015 would increase the opportunity for commerce along the I-95 corridor, as it would allow much larger vessels greater access to U.S. ports on the East Coast, significantly increasing freight traffic.

The investments address the needs of the country’s aging rail networks, while increasing rail capacity. Rail freight in the United States is projected to increase 35 percent by 2050, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, and as the U.S. population expands, the freight system will have to step up to meet the demands of a larger population.

Such projects have been controversial, especially in urban areas where development has boomed around the railroad. But in some areas, the public and the private sectors have come together to address the growing need for upgrading infrastructure.

In Chicago, for example, a major rail project is bringing together the city, state and U.S. departments of transportation, local passenger and commuter rail and national freight companies to invest in building infrastructure that would improve passenger rail service and reduce freight-rail congestion. The work includes 70 projects, about half of which are related to freight rail.

Over the past decade, railroad companies have invested heavily in upgrading aging infrastructure. Last year, the industry spent about $25 billion to build, maintain and upgrade its network and equipment, said Holly Arthur, a spokeswoman with the Association of American Railroads.

“That’s money that railroads pay using private capital so the taxpayers don’t have to,” said Arthur. And it goes to infrastructure and equipment like new tracks, new wayside detectors and technologies, new locomotives and upgrades similar to the ones proposed for the Virginia Avenue tunnel.

“Those are critical corridor projects that open up efficiencies in the network and are vital to improving and continuing [our ability] to meet demand,” she said.

Contentious project

In, Washington, the $200 million Virginia Avenue tunnel reconstruction, which CSX would fund, has become a touchy subject among area residents, who have caught the attention of numerous elected officials and revived the debate on rail safety. At numerous public meetings, the discussion has centered on concerns about derailments similar to those that have recently occurred in other parts of the country and on the transportation of hazardous materials.

CSX says it rarely transports crude oil through the District and does not carry hazardous substances such as compressed flammable gases and toxic and radioactive materials through the city. Some residents and elected officials complain that the Virginia Avenue tunnel project will require an open trench during construction, with trains running through the middle of the city, within the heart of monumental Washington.

“The railroad runs up and down, close to this neighborhood, and always has,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said at a recent community meeting. “People know that when they move here, but one thing that they don’t expect is that there would be a major railroad project right in the midst of their neighborhood.”