Nancy Fisher | 24th Street
|The foot of 10th Street, a location that has been considered for a pedestrian bridge. Photo Mike Salt.
Click on photo to enlarge.
Right or wrong, the North County Transit District (NCTD) has hit another nerve in Del Mar. Although the City was notified and press releases were issued, many residents were taken by surprise when NCTD Code Enforcement Officers and teams of San Diego County Deputies began, on August 1, to issue fines of up to $400 to residents and visitors trespassing within the railroad right-of-way.
Heavy enforcement on the southern bluffs, where residents have to walk up to a mile to cross the tracks legally near 15th Street, has motivated a fast-growing grass-roots group of Del Marians and Del Mar Heights residents to protest NCTD’s decision. Almost two hundred have replied to a post on the topic on the social network Nextdoor.
“It’s fair to say the community is expressing outrage,” says Del Mar Heights resident, Frank Stonebanks. “In less than three days we’ve had hundreds of people manually or electronically sign a petition, and more than one hundred joined our Facebook page (hwww.facebook.com/groups/delmarbeachaccess/). I’m literally getting four to six emails an hour on the subject.”
Residents opposing enforcement feel that the fines and lack of bluff access are disproportionate to the offense, which is walking the trails and sometimes crossing the tracks, as they’ve responsibly done for decades, to reach the beach in an area with no other access.
NCTD, however, in their letter to the City, defends the decision to significantly increase enforcement efforts. “Each year people are killed by trains in San Diego County while illegally walking on or crossing the rail tracks,” wrote Jaime Becerra, NCTD Chief of Transit Enforcement. The loss of life is both tragic and preventable. Unfortunately people continue to unlawfully utilize the tracks as a crossing point, a place for recreational activities, or even as a photo opportunity.”
Becerra also points out that the consequences of illegal trespassing affect much more than the trespasser. “Each time a train goes into an emergency stop due to a trespasser, passengers and the train crew may be injured due to the sudden and unexpected stop.” “Because of this,” he adds, “they are risking the lives of many others – not to mention potential property damage, loss of time for commuters, and an increased burden on tax payers.”
The elephant in the room, all parties agree, is that there should be more safe and legal access to the beach in Del Mar. Council Member Don Mosier, who is also a member of the board of NCTD, has worked on getting a pedestrian bridge built over the tracks at 10th or 11th St. “That project has foundered because we would need to build stairs all the way down to the beach and probably provide ADA access – so what started as a $300K project soon became $3M or more.” He added that it could still be done, but that the City would need to fund most of the work and bluff erosion would limit the lifespan of the project. Stonebanks believes there may be less expensive alternatives.
To this same point, NCTD acknowledges that they would prefer that infrastructure improvements are made that safely separate rail and pedestrian activities than to allocate enhanced resources to prevent trespassing. While recognizing the frustration of residents who have historically had access to the bluffs, NCTD officials insist that they are required by the Federal Railroad Administration “to take actions to mitigate safety risks and hazards such as trespassing.”
Many residents, however, believe that NCTD itself is posing the greatest risk to human life, and to their own equipment by continuing to run trains on this perilous, eroding stretch of track. The tracks, they say, should be moved, and the bluffs should become a pedestrian-only trail.
So fasten your seatbelts, Del Marians. This isn’t going to go away soon, and promises to be a hot issue for our City Council candidates as we approach election day.