Dwight Worden | Seaview Avenue
There’s lots happening on the Del Mar Bluffs regarding rails, tunnels, and fences. Here are key notes on what you need to know.
Rails. The North County Transit District (NCTD) owns the Railroad Right of Way (ROW). Amtrak and BNSF operate passenger and freight and NCTD operates the Coaster for a current total of 60+ trains per day, increasing to 100 per day by 2030. This is the 2nd busiest passenger rail corridor in the country. In addition to about 5 million passengers a year it provides freight service to the Port of San Diego (an $8 billion per year enterprise), and is part of the Department of Defense STRACNET (Strategic Rail Corridor network).
Safety. About a dozen people per year are killed by trains between Oceanside and San Diego. Some are suicides, some are not. NCTD rates the Del Mar Bluffs in the high risk category and wants to fence it to control trespassing.
Bluff Stabilization. The rail is at risk from bluff retreat and sea level rise. SANDAG is responsible for stabilizing the Del Mar bluffs. A six-phased stabilization is underway, with phases 1-4 completed. These four phases added steel soldier piles and addressed drainage issues along vulnerable sections of the ROW. Phases 5 and 6 (costing $100 million+) will do more of the same and will add new seawalls on the beach. Experts say these six phases will stabilize the bluffs until 2050.
Relocating the Rails Inland. Long-term plans call for relocating the rails to an inland tunnel by 2050. Five tunnel options have been identified. Costs range from $2.5 to 3.2 billion in 2017 dollars. Funding sources have yet to be identified.
Fencing. NCTD contends it has the right to fence the ROW without Del Mar, Coastal Commission, SANDAG, or CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) approval. NCTD has filed a petition asking the Federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) to confirm its exemption. The City and the Coastal Commission are contesting NCTD’s position. The parties have agreed to a 120 day stay to accommodate settlement discussions. Meanwhile, NCTD’s fencing installation is on hold pending the settlement discussions.
What it all means. There are important competing interests at issue on the Del Mar Bluffs. Safety is an important and legitimate concern with too many strikes and near misses (trains hitting cars or pedestrians). Public access to the beach is an important and legitimate concern. Protecting views and property values is also an important and legitimate concern.
The situation cries out for cooperation and collaboration. So far, NCTD has used a heavy hand to assert a fence is the only answer giving little concern to the other competing interests. There are ways to increase safety while still providing access and without unnecessarily blocking views and harming property values. Let’s hope NCTD can see that in the settlement talks getting underway.
For example, 13 of 14 strikes in recent years in Del Mar were clustered in close proximity to the Coast Blvd. crossing. A limited barrier (fence, post and rail, vegetation, etc.) strategically placed to control access could be placed at that location. Other parts of the ROW are bounded by steep natural cliffs and don’t need fences. Signage along the ROW and at street ends can be improved. Some fencing closer to the tracks and out of the view can be considered. A pedestrian crossing could be included at a strategic location, perhaps 11th street.
If all parties approach the situation with an open mind they can fashion a better solution. That’s the Del Mar goal.