ENCINITAS — Dozens of local and regional officials took part in the ceremonious groundbreaking of a highly anticipated railroad crossing Jan 18. Construction is slated to begin immediately on the $5.9 million pedestrian underpass with a completion date near the end of 2012.
The nearly decade’s old regional plan to create a trail that runs the length of the state’s scenic southern coastline along the rail corridor has frustrated residents and city officials alike. “It’s about time we started seeing some action on this project,” said Barnet Sykes, a downtown Encinitas resident. “I keep hearing it talked about and all I’ve seen is more talking.”
The project involves the preservation and development of disconnected rail links like those already in place in Oceanside, Carlsbad and Solana Beach.
These patches of rail trail will one day connect the entire 42-mile Coastal Rail Trail system.
Designed as a means of increasing bike and foot traffic, the trail will run adjacent to the active tracks of the San Diego to Los Angeles corridor.
As Amtrak, Metrolink and Coaster commuter trains create a barrier to the coastline for many residents and visitors to coastal cities, public transportation and safety is a priority, according to a SANDAG spokeswoman.
With that in mind, the rail trail is designed to be more than merely a recreational-use path, but rather a means of foot and bicycle traffic that will ultimately reduce carbon emissions and vehicle congestion, according to planning agency staff.
Richard Phillips, deputy city manager, said the project is progressing incrementally as funding becomes available and it makes sense.
“The project is the first of four grade-separated pedestrian under crossings that are planned for the rail corridor that runs through Encinitas,” Phillips said in a email to the City Council. “Part of the Santa Fe project includes construction of a small portion, 220-feet of the rail trail just south of the under crossing site.”
Planning of the project began in 2002 with a settlement agreement between the city and the North County Transit District, the agency responsible for the area on both sides of the railroad tracks. It was contingent upon obtaining a funding commitment from the State for preliminary design and engineering, according to Phillips.
“The city and SANDAG partnered in the project, with the city taking the lead in design approval and environmental documentation phase and SANDAG on the construction phase,” he said.
Funding for the project comes from various sources including $1.25 million in city funds.
With so many entities involved in the planning and implementation process, the long timeline is not unreasonable to officials.
Mayor Jerome Stocks told the crowd that while three additional pedestrian crossings were planned, funding was not yet in place. Two crossings are planned for Leucadia and one in Cardiff, but no timeframe for construction is in place.
The Santa Fe underpass design includes a crosswalk and pedestrian traffic light at Highway 101 near the underpass so people can safely cross the street once they are over the tracks. “Safety is our priority here,” Stocks said. With up to 70 trains passing through the city’s railway corridor per day, it is one of the busiest areas in the country, according to SANDAG officials.
“The purpose of the grade-separated pedestrian crossings is to improve pedestrian access and circulation across the rail corridor and improve rail and pedestrian safety conditions,” Phillips said.
But some residents were skeptical that a project of such magnitude was necessary to ensure safety. “I’ve lived here for over 30 years, crossed the tracks more times than that and seen plenty of people do the same,” said a resident who declined to give his name. “This is just a waste of money, plain and simple.” Joshua Wilson, an avid runner said that while a pedestrian crossing would be helpful to connect the city, he didn’t think the underpass was necessary. “It’s nice, but I think a simple at-grade crossing would have done the job and cost a lot less.”