The Virginia Avenue Tunnel reconstruction project in Washington, D.C. won the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) 2017 Environmental Excellence Award (EEA) for accelerating project delivery.
Now under construction, the project is replacing a 3,800-foot-long single-track tunnel with twin single-track tunnels, each capable of accommodating double-stack intermodal container freight trains. The first tunnel is now complete, and a second tunnel is targeted for completion in early 2019.
WSP USA coordinated project compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for required approval from the FHWA & the District Department of Transportation (DDOT). WSP developed the required environmental impact statement (EIS), which was completed in June 2014. At the time, Jason Yazawa served as deputy project manager for WSP.
CSX Transportation is the owner of the 100-year-old tunnel, located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, beneath Virginia Avenue Southeast and between 2nd and 11th streets Southeast. The tunnel is part of CSX’s primary freight rail network for the East Coast, which includes railroads within the District of Columbia.
“The new tunnel will eliminate the existing bottleneck at a very important location on CSX’s northeast network and will allow CSX to operate double-stack intermodal container freight trains,” Yazawa said. “Like the old tunnel, the new tunnel will only be used for freight traffic.”
The EEA award recognized the EIS prepared by WSP, which recommended the “preferred alternative” that was accepted by FHWA and DDOT and is now under construction.
The EEAs recognize outstanding transportation projects, processes and people who incorporate environmental stewardship into the planning and project development processes using FHWA funding sources. Projects highlighted in this program demonstrate a strong commitment to promoting environmental stewardship through transportation programs, plans and initiatives.
The awards were announced on Earth Day and will be presented at a ceremony this summer.
When WSP joined the project in 2011, the Virginia Avenue Tunnel was showing signs of its age and nearing the end of reliable service. The tunnel was subject to frequent maintenance and repairs, and without replacement, would have likely required emergency or unplanned repairs in the near future. The single track tunnel also created a chokepoint that caused shipping delays along CSX’s mainline freight rail network.
Yazawa said one motivation for replacing the tunnel was a project completed thousands of mile away last summer – the expansion of the Panama Canal.
“There was an urgency related to the expansion of the Panama Canal, which is anticipated to substantially increase the amount of freight transported to-and-from Asia using East Coast ports,” Yazawa said.
The tunnel also had insufficient vertical clearance to allow trains pulling double-stack intermodal containers, a type of freight operation that is increasingly becoming the industry norm as freight demand increased, while the national freight rail network has remained basically the same.
“Intermodal containers moved by train are substantially more fuel efficient than containers moved by trucking,” Yazawa added.
The CSX proposal was to replace the aging Virginia Avenue Tunnel with a facility that would provide for the long-term freight transportation needs of the railroad network in Washington, D.C. and throughout CSX’s mainline freight rail network along the U.S. East Coast.
Although EIS projects can take several years, WSP was able to coordinate this effort with FHWA and DDOT to complete it within 30 months in order to help CSX keep its construction plan on track. The project potentially affected historic properties in addition to a park, so addressing these issues required working with dozens of stakeholders, as well as other agencies.
One of the biggest challenges the tunnel plan faced was opposition by a group that wanted to eliminate all freight rail from passing through Washington, D.C.
“At the time of preparing the various NEPA documents, we knew there was a high probability the project would be challenged in court,” Yazawa said. “So there was significant pressure to make sure we prepared quality documents that would stand up to a challenge.”
The NEPA documents that WSP developed were strong enough to successfully overcome that legal challenge in 2015. “It was very satisfying to read the ruling by the judge dispelling all of the arguments against our documents,” Yazawa said.
WSP also prepared the Historic American Engineering Record documentation for the original tunnel before it was demolished.
“We continue to participate in discussions with CSX and their construction, environmental compliance, real estate and public outreach teams as construction progresses,” Yazawa said.