Train heading to National Airport by thisisbossi licensed under Creative Commons.

Loud, disruptive construction noise late at night from Metro’s summer Yellow and Blue Line shutdown has come to be a headache for some nearby residents. Some have called it “cruel,” “terrible,” and say “you couldn’t have a conversation on the sidewalk” near one of the closed stations while it’s happening. But while Metro’s crews work and they, Fairfax, and Alexandria receive complaints, it appears there’s not much that can be done for those that live close by.

Metro closed the six Yellow and Blue Line stations south of National Airport on May 25, using the next 107 days to demolish and rebuild platforms at three stations (the other three come after all six reopen on September 9). It’s also doing other work including replacing platform tiles, conducting a “repair blitz” in the Alexandria Rail Yard, and preparing for construction of the new Potomac Yard station.

Residents who live near several stations including Braddock Road, King Street, and Huntington have raised concerns about the noise generated by the shutdown during evenings and late into the night. Loud construction work is typically not allowed overnight, so what gives?

Legal code gives railroads a wide berth

Both Fairfax County and the City of Alexandria have legal codes which govern anything from building regulations to vehicles, health and sanitation, and noise. However, the two locales include wide exemptions for railroads to run their operations and conduct maintenance.

Fairfax County’s noise ordinance says “Trains traveling on tracks located in railroad right-of-way or easements, including trains serving an interstate area and trains serving the Washington metropolitan region, and railroad track maintenance” (emphasis added) are exempt.

The City of Alexandria’s noise ordinance exemption for rail is even larger, saying “Work necessary to restore and maintain services provided by public service companies, the rail rapid transit system and the city” doesn’t have to be limited to just daytime hours. Alexandria has not issued any noise exemption waivers to Metro, according to Alexandria mayor Justin Wilson, who said “they were already exempt by code.”

Fairfax County did grant Metro, through its contractor, Kiewit, a noise waiver allowing for additional construction activities and noise for “station renovation activities” at Huntington. But according to Lorrie Kirst, Senior Deputy Zoning Administrator with the County, the waiver doesn’t quite tell the complete story.

Click here to read the noise waiver issued by Fairfax to Kiewit

Metro told Fox 5 that “it has a 24/7 exemption from [noise ordinances], but only for track work,” which is factually correct.

“When we talk about saying that the tracks are exempt,” Kirst said, “maybe the simplest way of describing it is, once the tracks leave the platform and then go on, any work that’s done outside of that platform area on the tracks would be exempt. Because that would all be considered then ‘track maintenance’.”

“The parking areas, all the travel areas…the pedestrian walkways…that’s all considered inside the station,” Kirst added, explaining what the noise waiver granted to Metro covers. Crews working in those areas aren’t allowed to perform “excavation, demolition, saw cutting, and jack hammering” between 10 pm-6 am on Sunday through Thursdays, and 10 pm-8 am on Friday and Saturday. Those restrictions don’t apply to the tracks outside the stations, however.

Metro posted photos last week of wet concrete being poured outside Huntington. That can only take place after jackhammering out the old concrete, and would explain a potential source of the noise reported around the Huntington station.

As a stipulation for receiving the noise waiver, Kiewit and Metro were required to notify nearby residents of the upcoming construction disruptions: “Kiewit Infrastructure Co. must contact all abutting property owners and provide each with a copy of the construction schedule and the approved Noise Waiver,” reads an Administrative Requirement which Fairfax specified.

Residents weren’t told about overnight construction

Huntington resident Michael Lyons independently obtained a copy of the Huntington Metro Noise Waiver Information flier which Fairfax shared with local residents, but said his building’s residents weren’t prepared for the round-the-clock trackwork excluded from the document.

“Some rather irritated residents of my building contacted the Mount Vernon district supervisor, and apparently they’re NOT allowed to jackhammer after 10 PM at Huntington, and that the police should be contacted if it happens again,” wrote Lyons on Twitter.

Noise levels measured from a nearby 15th story window near the tracks crossing Cameron Run on Wednesday, June 12. For reference, see this Noise Comparison Chart.

When asked, Lyons added, “We knew about the shutdown, but the building as a whole wasn’t told about the overnight, loud construction.” With the Fairfax County exemption in place, Metro wouldn’t need to do anything special before starting their outdoor trackwork. The information his building’s residents received seemed to conflict with what Metro’s statements said about being allowed to do drilling all night.

Fairfax’s Kirst said the county may look into making further refinements to the process so that residents near potential construction noise are notified ahead of time. “We’re trying to make this as transparent and as clear to people as possible,” she noted.

Metro spokesperson Ron Holzer emailed unsolicited to provide a link to the Fairfax County code’s noise exemptions, saying, “The overnight work referenced is Metro’s track work not Kiewit.”

Noisier work may be completed earlier in the project

After contacting Metro about the overnight noise, Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson said he was told “The noisy activities at Braddock Road (sawcutting and jackhammering) are going to be conducted early in the project schedule.”

Noises associated with platform deconstruction are expected at Braddock Road, King Street, and Eisenhower Avenue stations, the three which are expected to be completed during the 107-day shutdown. Crews will then shift to Huntington, Van Dorn, and Franconia to cut out and replace the platforms at those three stations after September 8.

Other non-platform work Metro is performing, like installing a new track crossover north of King Street and replacing the crossover just north of Huntington, is ongoing.

Metro Reasons is a regular breaking news, investigative reporting, and analysis column by Stephen Repetski about everything Metro. Please send tips to Metro Reasons.

Stephen Repetski is a Virginia native and has lived in the Fairfax area for over 20 years. He has a BS in Applied Networking and Systems Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology and works in Information Technology. Learning about, discussing, and analyzing transit (especially planes and trains) is a hobby he enjoys.