One of the worst rail bottlenecks on the east coast is Washington’s Virginia Avenue Tunnel. While the tunnel originally carried two tracks, it was narrowed to one to allow taller and wider freight cars. With growing freight rail traffic across the united States, the century-old tunnel is in dire need of replacement.

As a part of CSX’s National Gateway initiative, the railroad wants to rebuild the tunnel to have two tracks and a higher clearance. This will, in conjunction with other improvements in the region, allow double-stack trains to travel from the Port of Baltimore to the Southeast and trains from the Southeast to travel to the Midwest.

The Virginia Avenue Tunnel project will also reduce congestion for commuter rail riders in the region caused by freight trains waiting for their turn to use the tunnel. In conjunction with other improvements, the tunnel project will allow Amtrak, MARC, and VRE to add more trains in the future.

The 4000-foot long tunnel runs for 9 blocks under Virginia Avenue in Southeast Washington. It carries CSX freight trains from an eastern portal at 11th Street to a western portal near at 2nd Street. Freight traffic traveling from the Southeastern United States to lines running to the Midwest and Northeast must pass through the Virginia Avenue Tunnel. No passenger trains operate through the tunnel because those trains travel through Union Station and the First Street Tunnel.

Monday afternoon, CSX invited several bloggers for an update on the status of the project.

The National Gateway project as a whole got a boost earlier this year when it was awarded a TIGER grant for $98 million to raise clearances at 38 locations in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. There are a remaining 23 projects that must be undertaken, including 13 projects in the region, before CSX’s National Gateway will allow double-stack trains to travel between ports on the east coast and Chicago.

The single largest clearance project remaining is the Virginia Avenue Tunnel, which is expected to cost $160 million to replace. CSX is still hoping to receive federal funding for the project, which is contingent to its construction. CSX is looking toward the transportation reauthorization as one source of funding for the project, but President Obama has put that on the back-burner. Another round of TIGER could also provide gains for the project. The US Department of Transportation has already expressed support in the project by funding a portion of the National Gateway. Another feather in CSX’s cap is the support of 6 state governors. In fact, Virginia has already spent $26 million toward the tunnel replacement.

In order to replace the tunnel, CSX will undertake a construction program lasting 2-3 years. It wouldn’t start before late 2011 at the earliest, and CSX plans to undertake a NEPA environmental impact statement prior to that, which would take 6 months to a year to complete. During the construction period, Virginia Avenue would be closed between 2nd Street and 11th Street SE. CSX representatives say that all cross streets will remain open during construction, with vehicular and pedestrian access, except for short closings to construct temporary structures over through the construction site.

During the tunnel replacement, a temporary trench will be dug south of the existing tunnel. It would be 20-25’ wide and about 25’ deep. Trains would run in this trench until the tunnel project has been finished. After the tunnel is complete, the trench will be filled back in.

The tunnel itself will have it’s top removed. The trackbed will be lowered several feet and the walls will also be widened. Once this is complete, a new roof will be put on top and recovered with soil and Virginia Avenue.

All construction will take place within the right-of-way, which is about 100 feet wide. Although Virginia Avenue would be closed, access will be maintained to properties throughout the process. One of the most difficult areas to work around is the new development which is currently under construction along Virginia Avenue between 3rd and 4th Streets SE. CSX officials said that they would consider decking over the trench in this area if necessary to maintain access.

After the tunnel is complete and the trench refilled, the Virginia Avenue corridor will see some improvements, including new streetscaping and furniture. Additionally, a bikeway linking to the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail will be constructed along the Virginia Avenue axis.

But benefits will extend beyond Southeast DC. Commuters on MARC’s Brunswick and Camden Lines and on both VRE lines will see fewer delays. With more freight moving by rail, drivers will also see fewer trucks on the roads and less pollution in the air.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Dupont Circle. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.