Coastal Rail plan, fence proposal, panned by residents

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to from an earlier version to reflect the accurate cost of the Coast Highway rail alternative, $4 million to $5 million.

ENCINITAS—What started as a meeting to unveil the two alternatives for a coastal rail trail between Cardiff and Downtown Encinitas quickly spiraled into a debate over fencing that officials said is likely inevitable along the North County Transit District’s railroad right of way.

SANDAG officials have settled in on two alternatives for the 1.5-mile stretch, which would transform either Coast Highway 101 or San Elijo and Vulcan avenues into pedestrian and cyclist-friendly thoroughfares.

Officials hope to have the project ready for federal and state environmental review by mid-2016.

Skeptics of the plan grew vocal when Encinitas City Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer, told the audience that the transit district, which owns the right of way, plans on erecting a fence along the stretch of San Elijo Avenue with or without the project, which SANDAG project manager Chris Carterette and transit district chief planning officer Dahvia Lynch confirmed.

Lynch said the plan for a fence line independent of the rail project is a long-term project the district is exploring but is currently unfunded and there are no estimates as to when it would occur.

“We are really not there yet,” she said. “It is going to be a long process.”

Carterette said that the rails plan was not tied to plans to explore future under- and over-crossings along the rail corridor, so it was not clear how long after a fence were in place any crossing relief would take place.

For most of the nearly 100 residents and stakeholders in attendance, a fence line would effectively separate Cardiff from the coastline without any firm plans for additional crossings, which they said was unacceptable.

“Most of us live here because we want access to the beach,” said Julie Thunder, one of the more vocal critics at the workshop. “If the city is not willing to put crossings, then our beach access is gone.”

Deputy Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who was also on hand for the workshop, said she believed the solution would be building pedestrian crossings at grade with the railroad, which would be much cheaper than other types of crossings, and would provide the beach access that the fence line would eliminate.

Previous studies, however, ruled that these types of crossing would be troublesome due to train speeds in the area.

“It’s clear that people aren’t hopping down the bluffs to get to the beach, there are clearly places where people go to cross,” Blakespear said. “We need to investigate what it would take to make these at-grade crossings feasible.”

Many residents also expressed skepticism about the San Elijo plan, which they said would put cyclists in close contact with neighbors leaving their homes along the street.

Carterette said the hope of the coastal trail plan was to reduce dependency on vehicles, but most neighbors said this was more rhetoric than reality.

Not all of the residents were opposed to the plan, though. Michele Jacquin, who said the current walk along Coast Highway is not conducive to the casual walker, said she liked the San Elijo Avenue concept.

“I would love to have a promenade,” Jacquin said “If I want to walk to Seaside Market, I have to dodge cars going 65 miles per hour on this material. There is no place for me.”

Thunder and several residents suggested two alternative plans. The first would create a simple walking path along San Elijo, and the other bike and shared-used paths along Coast Highway, where there is more room to accommodate them. The second would be to start the continuous paths along Vulcan, run them through the recently completed undercrossing at Swami’s Beach, and then continue them along Coast Highway.

The latter plan, neighbors said, would avoid the two areas that even planning officials acknowledge would be troublesome: Coast Highway through Downtown Encinitas, and San Elijo Avenue through Cardiff.

Carterette said the plan is to take all of the feedback from this meeting and determine which of the alternatives would be the preferred plan, though they would also look into some of the suggested alternatives from residents.

“The plan had recently been focused on these alternatives, but we will be in talks with the city and work on how to proceed,” Carterette said.

Additionally, SANDAG and the city must also find a way to narrow the gap between the project’s current cost and the amount of money available to complete it. SANDAG has budgeted $5.1 million for the project, which will be paid for through TransNet, the county half-cents sales tax. The cheaper of the two alternatives – Coast Highway – costs around $4 million to $5 million, Carterette said.

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