Construction atop the Virginia Avenue Tunnel project takes place alongside residences Jan. 25 in Southeast Washington. Two new tunnels are designed to accommodate double-stacked rail cars. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

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.

The view east from New Jersey Avenue SE toward the Virginia Avenue Tunnel project. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

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.”